Entering the 2014 season, the Arizona Cardinals faced enormous obstacles, playing in a division with the NFC’s top two Super Bowl favorites and having to play the eighth-most difficult schedule. Halfway through the season, Arizona has exceeded all expectations, sitting alone in first place and owning the NFL’s best record.
“We’re a scrappy group all over the place,” quarterback Carson Palmer said after Arizona’s Week 9 win in Dallas. “Offense, defense, special teams and we have a great fight about us, a great mindset that nothing’s too big to overcome. I think we’ve proved that.”
Arizona has not been given the respect of a Super Bowl contender for much of the season. The betting lines often recognize Arizona as an average team, as they were less than three-point home favorites against the Philadelphia Eagles and four-point underdogs when it appeared Tony Romo would start against them for the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday. Following their Week 9 victory, though, the Cardinals can no longer be ignored as a legitimate contender.
With their 28-17 victory over the Cowboys, the Cardinals continue to defeat good teams. They are 4-1 against opponents that currently have a .500 record or better, with their only loss coming in Denver. Arizona isn’t simply narrowly beating other teams, but instead, they’re winning convincingly. The Cardinals have defeated opponents by an 8.1-point average margin of victory, and just two out of their seven wins have come by less than nine points.
It hasn’t been an easy road to 7-1. Arizona has faced their share of adversity, dealing with injuries to their top two quarterbacks and deactivating running back Jonathan Dwyer because of domestic violence charges.
"You have to stay tough," general manager Steve Keim told The Arizona Republic after Week 5. "You have to talk yourself out of (self-pity). You have to realize that 31 other teams don't care about your problems. They have enough of their own. And every team in this league will face some degree of adversity before it's over."
Offensively, Arizona is not overly impressive. In a league that is dominated by high-powered offenses and star quarterbacks putting up record-setting numbers, the Cardinals have been average. Arizona ranks 14th in scoring, and they haven’t surpassed 30 points in any game.
“They got a heck of a head coach who’s opened up the offense,” Dan Shonka, general manager and national scout for Ourlads, a top football scouting service, told International Business Times in a phone interview. “The big thing is they’re overcoming a lot of injuries that they had earlier, which a lot of teams can’t do, because of good depth. I think their general manager has done an excellent job of putting together personnel for Bruce Arians, and they always seem to have a plan for their personnel.”
The Cardinals’ coaching staff has helped produce an efficient offense, but it’s nothing compared to that of the other top teams. All but one team with at least six wins has a higher scoring average than Arizona, and the Cardinals have found different ways to win seven of their first eight games.
With so many issues on the offensive side of the ball, the Cardinals have needed the defense to step up and be one of the best in the league. Through eight games, the unit has done exactly that.
Allowing 19.5 points per game, Arizona ranks fifth in scoring defense. They’ve allowed more than 20 points just once, despite losing linebacker Daryl Washington to a year-long suspension, linebacker John Abraham to a concussion, and defensive tackle Darnell Dockett to a torn ACL.
Becoming the only team to hold DeMarco Murray under 100 yards, the Cardinals are elite when it comes to stopping the run, ranking third by holding opponents to fewer than 80 yards per contest. No team surrenders more than the 286.6 passing yards per game that Arizona allows, but that number doesn’t tell the whole story.
Only three teams have faced more pass attempts than Arizona, because they are constantly in the lead and opponents can’t find success running the ball. The Cardinals rank ninth in opposing passer rating, forcing six quarterbacks to post a rating of 83.0 or worse. A player with an 83.0 rating for the season would rank behind the top 25 NFL starting quarterbacks in 2014.
“(Defensive Coordinator) Todd Bowles has done a great job with their defense,” Shonka said. “The linebackers play well, the secondary is outstanding, they’re getting some push up front, so I think that’s just a combination of things on defense.”
Perhaps most important has been Arizona’s ability to force turnovers. They have 12 interceptions on the season, tying them for first in the league. In 2013, the Seattle Seahawks led the league in interceptions and went on to win the Super Bowl.
Arizona was expected to finish third in the NFC West and miss the playoffs, but it looks like they have a chance to make a deep run in the postseason.
“Success breeds success," Shonka said. "I think that’s why they’re confident and they're playing well.”