For the third time in as many week's, the Arizona Cardinals entered their game as underdogs. For the third time in as many weeks, the Cardinals saw off their opponents, and sent a message to their doubters.
By starting the season 3-0, for the first time since 1974, the Arizona Cardinals are forcing the league to take notice. Any lingering doubts about if the team are the real deal were put firmly to rest when the Cardinals demolished the Philadelphia Eagles 27-6.
The result gave both Cardinals fans and detractors a lot to chew on, and here are the five biggest things we learned.
1. The Cardinals Defense is an Elite Unit.
For a while now, people have been paying attention to Ray Horton's unit, but most have stopped short of calling them elite, and even fewer would dare suggest that they are in contention to be named the top defense in the NFL.
Well, I'm just gonna come right out and say it. Their defense is elite, and may just be the best in the NFL right now.
Against the Eagles, the Cardinals proved their elite credentials, and did it missing defensive captain Adrian Wilson, and defensive line anchor Darnell Dockett for much for the fourth quarter.
Throughout the game, they harassed Michael Vick, registering five sacks and somewhere in the region of 20 hits on the quarterback, not to mention an additional 10 hurries. They stripped the ball from Vick's hands twice, including one fumble which was recovered for a 93 yard touchdown with the final play of the first half.
Through the first two weeks, the Eagles possessed the NFL's top offense, averaging more than 470 total yards and more than 20 points per game. Against the Cardinals, that was reduced to just 308 yards, and two field goals.
Vick completed just 30% of his pass attempts.
However, stats only tell a small portion of the story. The true measure of an elite defense is not how many yards they give up, or how many points they allow, but whether they can finish, whether they can come up with big plays, and whether they will refuse to give up.
The Cardinals have finally proved that they can do all of these things, and nothing epitomised this more than the final drive of the first half.
Vick finally seemed to have some momentum going for him. He was moving the ball, and getting into scoring range.
The Cardinals appeared to be struggling a little with communication and coverage, and the Eagles were exploiting this. With 24 ticks remaining on the clock, and sitting on the Arizona 15 yard line, Vick connected DeSean Jackson on what appeared to be a sure touchdown catch. Kerry Rhodes disagreed however, stopping Jackson at the 1 yard line.
The Cardinals had a 17-0 lead at this time, and many teams, believing that the points were inevitable may have chosen to allow the score, and get off the field. Two plays later, Rhodes was at it again, forcing Vick to fumble the ball, and setting up the James Sanders 93 yard touchdown return.
By refusing to give up, by refusing to believe that they could be bested, the Cardinals defense turned an Eagles TD into 7 points of their own, an effective 14 point difference, which, in the end, put the game out of reach for the Eagles.
Over three games, the Cardinals have stifled the top ranked offense in the league (the Eagles), one of the NFL's last remaining dynasties (The New England Patriots) and one of the best running backs in the NFL (Marshawn Lynch of the Seattle Seahawks). The so called better defenses in the league, The Ravens, 49ers, Seahawks and Giants, have all been bested by lesser offences, so it's easy to suggest that the Cardinals may just posses the best offense in the NFL today. Whether they can keep it up remains to be seen, but at least on the evidence of what we have seen so far, things are really looking up for the team.
2. Larry Fitzgerald Won't be Easily Stopped.
Larry Fitzgerald is one of the top wide receivers in the game, no-one seriously questions that. But, through two games It appeared as if the oft-hyperbolised quarterback problems in Arizona would actually cause a real and discernible drop in his production in 2012.
Fitzgerald has failed to top 1000 yards only twice in his decorated career, in 2004, his rookie season, and again in 2006, when he missed three games with injury, missing the mark by just 54 yards. However, after posting just 5 receptions for 67 yards and no touchdowns over the first two games of the season, many predicted that 2012 would soon be added to that list.
114 yards and a touchdown against the Eagles is likely to put paid to that idea.
It's pretty obvious that at times, Fitzgerald and Kolb have struggled to get on the same page.
Early in his career, Kolb relied to heavily on Fitzgerald's prodigious skill, forcing the ball too him, and giving up a significant number of picks as a result.
Perhaps understandably, Kolb has since dialled in on other receivers ahead of Fitzgerald, even when Number 11 had match ups which clearly favored the star.
In Week 3, however, Fitzgerald and Kolb finally seemed to have found a rhythm, and it worked to great effect, even against the Eagles supposedly All-Star secondary. Kolb targeted him nine times during the game, and on each and every occasion, Fitzgerald came up with catch.
Fitzgerald proved to Kolb that he is still a dependable receiver, to his fans that he still has what it takes, and to the league that they cannot disregard his skill.
The Cardinals upcoming fixtures are likely to lead to more big games for Fitzgerald—Santonio Holmes torched the Dolphins secondary in Week 3, for example, and Fitzgerald can legitimately hope to post similar numbers.
The reason Fitzgerald remains elite, however, is not just how he deals with success, but how he reacted his own failures and the successes and failures of others.
In Week 2, Fitzgerald had a single catch for 4 yards. Nonetheless, Fitzgerald's name was called dozens of times throughout the game. He was called for his blocking ability, for the way he drew coverage and ran routes.
In Week 3, in spite of his own monster numbers, an illegal block by Fitzgerald in the back saw a 79 yard gain by Andre Roberts effectively wiped off the board. In a game filled with divas, Fitzgerald's reaction said it all. He was distraught. He spent the majority of the next series head in hands, unbelieving that he could have made such a mistake.
"I still feel pretty bad," Fitzgerald said to Bob McManaman of The Arizona Republic after the game http://www.azcentral.com/arizonarepublic/sports/articles/2012/09/23/20120923arizona-cardinals-receiver-larry-fitzgerald-comes-up-big-victory-over-philadelphia-eagles.html. "I cost my closest friend on the team a 70-yard play. I have a lot to work on still."
Conversely when James Sanders returned the fumble, Fitzgerald ran the length of the field to cheer him into the end-zone.
Fitzgerald will not be easily stopped simply because he brings something to the table which is exceedingly rare in the NFL: A selflessness which raises the level of everyone around him.
3. Kevin Kolb May Have Finally Turned A Corner.
To say that Kevin Kolb has had a tough time since coming to Arizona would be an understatement. He arrived under the weight of being the savior of the franchise, the second coming of Kurt Warner himself. Unsurprisingly, he failed to live up to expectations, struggling to get to grips with the system, struggling behind a sub-par offensive line, and ultimately losing his job due to injury during his first season.
In spite of his multi-million dollar salary, Kolb still lost the starting job to former fifth round pick John Skelton during the preseason QB battle following some, at times, truly shocking play.
Skelton looked serviceable during the early exchanges in Week 1, but when an ankle injury ended his day, it was Kolb, not Skelton who would take the credit for the win. And rightly so. His come-off-the-bench touchdown drive was inspired, and really did put the Cardinals in a position to win.
In Week 2, he managed the game well giving the Cardinals every chance to beat the New England Patriots, and in Week 3, Kolb looked, at times, like a man possessed when taking on his former team.
In two and a half games, Kolb is now 38-of-59 for 428 yards and 4 touchdowns, and a rushing TD to boot. What's more impressive, however, is that Kolb has only been sacked 4 times, and has yet to be intercepted, though he has put the ball on the ground once.
Those numbers, while far from elite, are, I believe, exactly what the Cardinals hoped for when they brought Kolb in.
Many of the concerns I had about Kolb, even during pre-season, appear largely to have been overcome. Kolb now looks confident standing tall in the pocket and completing passes under duress. When flushed out of the pocket, he has also demonstrated an ability to make good reads on the move, reset his feet, and complete passes, only throwing the ball away as a last resort. His ability to avoid sacks, too, appears much improved.
In many ways, the Kevin Kolb of 2012 reminds me an awful lot of Alex Smith of 2011. Both players had struggled to establish themselves as a dependable starting quarterbacks in the past. Both had experienced a level of animosity from their home fans, and were considered, at best, an unfortunate stop-gap solution until the team eventually found their future franchise quarterback.
In 2011, Alex Smith finally turned a corner, and developed into a dependable game-manager type quarterback, with the ability to protect the ball and keep his team in contention, and allow their real starts—their defense and running game—to shine.
In 2012, at least on the evidence of his early season performances, Kolb could be in a position to emulate that, with one major advantage over Smith; An elite receiver in the form of the aforementioned Larry Fitzgerald.
The Cardinals defense looks at least as good as the 49ers, their running game is showing signs of life, and, with Fitzgerald and Kolb finally appearing to be on the same page, even the Cardinals passing game is a real threat.
It is certainly too early to declare anything about Kolb definitively yet, but if he is able to continue playing at his current level, perhaps he can finally shake the monkey off his back, and develop into the dependable quarterback the Cardinals need.
I am a fan of Skelton, but even I hope that the Cardinals choose to ride Kolb for a little longer, and see if he is able to continue this run of form.
4. The University of Phoenix Stadium is Becoming A Real Tough Place For Visiting Teams to Play.
Many stadiums are known for being tough on visiting teams. Whether it's the noise of Seattle's 12th Man or Kansas City's Sea of Red, the cold weather at New England's Gillette Stadium or Pittsburgh's Heinz Field, the poor quality of the playing field in Oakland and the rowdiness of their fans, or the altitude of Denver's Mile High stadium, these locations all, quite rightly, offer the home team a clear advantage.
The University of Phoenix Stadium has never really had that distinction. The stadium is one of the best in the NFL for many reasons. It's turf is regularly voted the best natural surface to play on. It's retractable roof and air-conditioning ensures that the the weather is never an issue, and conditions are always perfect for football.
And though the team have sold out every game since moving to their new stadium, the stands are regularly criticised for being half-empty. In several notable games, including the Cardinals 2011 game against the Pittsburgh Steelers where visiting fans seemed to outnumber the home ones in large areas of the stadium. The noise in the stadium, even with the roof closed, has simply never been as deafening or offputting as at many other venues around the league.
The truth of the matter is, the Cardinals stadium has traditionally been known as an easy, even enjoyable, stadium for teams to visit.
That perception is beginning to change
The grass is still pristine, the stadium still perfectly air conditioned, even in the Arizona heat. But the fans are finally getting loud, and disruptive.
It helps, of course, that the team finally have something to cheer for. On defense, the Cardinals are time and again making big plays, and with each and every one, the noise level raises and the crowd becomes that little bit more impassioned. On offense, the chain is finally moving, big plays are finally coming to fruition, and that too raises the volume.
While still a little way from being considered a fortress, an impossible place for visitors to win, over their first two home games, the noise level certainly seems to have affected the visiting teams. It seems to me that the crowds are at least as fired up as during the Cardinals 2008/2009 Super Bowl run, and if that continues, the Cardinals stadium will be viewed by visitors as another one of those problematic road games, which is a great benefit to any team with playoffs aspirations.
5. The Cardinals Can No Longer Be Seen as Underdogs.
Most honest commentators considered the possibility of the Cardinals sitting at 3-0 through three weeks a near impossibility. Weeks 4 though 7 was considered the softest part of the Cardinals schedule, hosting the Miami Dolphins, travelling to St. Louis to face their division rival Rams, receiving the Buffalo Bills and then visiting the Minnesota Vikings.
While there is no such thing as a guaranteed win in the NFL, the Cardinals should legitimately be considered favorites against all four of these teams.
Even accounting for an unforeseen loss to one of these sides, a 6-1 start would put the Cardinals in a great position to make the playoffs, needing just four wins in the home stretch to reach the 10-6 record which usually ensures a playoff birth.
During that time, the Cardinals will face, amongst others, the Green Bay Packers, Atlanta Falcons and San Francisco 49ers twice, so it is no easy ride, but the momentum from a 6-1 start may be too much for even some of these teams to overcome.
The Cardinals have seen their Super Bowl odds in Vegas slashed from 150-1 before the start of the season, to 30-1 today.
Though still far from favorites to win the Super Bowl, and still a little way from being considered NFC West favorites even, the team simply cannot be considered a pushover any more. Including the team's late season surge in 2011, the Cardinals are now 11-2 over their last 13 games. Few teams in the NFL could boast such an impressive record, especially considering some of the teams that they have overcome during that time.
This is, of course, a mixed blessing. Increased expectations and increased scrutiny mean that teams are less likely to underestimate the Cardinals, and will prepare for them that much more seriously. However, if they continue to perform the way they have in recent weeks, it's hard to imagine that wins are impossible, even against the toughest of NFL opposition.
The NFL playoffs are no longer a pipe dream for this Cardinals team.