By Dan McLaughlin @McGloogly @gridirongents @TLE_Sport
Whilst it feels like every week there’s a different team that could be a potential Super Bowl contenders, one team is constantly overlooked. Despite constant chatter about how good the Broncos are or how likely a Patriots vs Packers Super Bowl is, there is only one team that is sitting on a 9-1 record this Season and in doing so are defying nearly everyone’s rankings, despite a ridiculous injury list. So now is the time to ask, could the Arizona Cardinals actually be the best team in the NFL right now? Could they enter the Playoffs with home field advantage and hold it all the way to the Super Bowl? With a game away to last year’s Super Bowl champs this week, here’s a look at the Cards, the team with the best record in the NFL but whom no-one is tipping for glory.
Before examining the Cardinals Super Bowl credentials, let’s look at the teams they’ve already beaten so far this season. With a 9 -1 record in potentially the toughest Division in the league, they have already recorded notable victories over some of the game’s powerhouses. The Cards most remarkable win was probably last weekend against a Detroit Lions team that has, at least defensively, played quite well. But wins against the Niners, Giants, Cowboys, Eagles and a resurgent Rams team have been pretty impressive too.
The best team to compare them to would be last year’s Chiefs team that went 9-0. There’s no doubt that the Cardinals’ schedule has been harder than the 2013 Chiefs’ but the real test comes in the final 6 games. Arizona have a run-in featuring the Seahawks twice, Niners and the Chiefs, not an easy finale at all. Regardless, the 9 wins they already have and the win they will almost certainly get against the Falcons should be enough to see them through to the Playoffs.
What makes the 9-1 record even more impressive is the sheer number of injuries they’ve suffered to some of their top talent. Carson Palmer, Darnell Dockett and John Abraham have all been put on IR for the Season; Daryl Washington has been suspended for the season after a repeat violation of substance abuse policy and Andre Ellington, Larry Fitzgerald, Tyronn Matthieu and Calais Campbell have all have all spent time on the sidelines, leaving the Cards with holes in every unit which should have heavily affected their record. It hasn’t. Every week more players get injured and everyone assumes their chances of winning the Division have gone. Two weeks ago they lost their starting Quarterback Palmer (not for the first time this season), which should have been terminal. Instead the Cardinals got a result against a decent Lions team, effectively beating them at their own game by out playing them on Defence, with backup Drew Stanton scoring two Touchdowns against one of the most lethal Defences in the league. So, even with all these injuries, how are they still winning?
It is fairly obvious that the Cardinals’ Offence lacks some fire power. Stanton is a good backup QB but probably not good enough to take the reigns as a starter. Ellington looked good last year but has struggled this year, probably due to injury he appears to be playing with. The Receiver corps has been decent, but nowhere near the best in the league. John Brown and Fitzgerald have had a few strong games but Michael Floyd has been disappointing this year after having a great run in 2014. That being said, the Cards always do just enough to win games without ever really blowing anyone out – the most they have scored in a game is 31 points.
However thanks to the Cards’ awesome Defence this doesn’t matter. There is talent in every area. The front three look amazing with Calais Campbell the standout performer but Dan Williams, Tommy Kelly and Frostee Rucker have all made notable contributions. At Line-backer, the Washington suspension could have sealed their fate, but with Larry Foote, Sam Acho, Alex Okafor and Kevin Minter, they haven’t missed a step. Nevertheless, the Cardinals often play with only two Line-backers, filling in with a bevy of multi-talented Defensive Backs, sometimes even having seven of them on the field at one time. Patrick Peterson is the obvious standout player on this Defence, but Antonio Cromartie has done a great job of keeping up with him, and Tyrann Matthieu has overcome a huge injury last season to be one of the top Safeties in the league. Rashad Johnson has made a couple of game winning plays against both the Eagles & the Lions and Deone Bucannon has joined a long list of Rookies that have over-performed this Season. All in all, a talented and versatile Defence.
Despite their Defence, the Cardinal’s real strength is their coaching team. Bruce Arians is a shoe-in for the ‘Coach of the year’ award after getting the Offence to consistently over-perform. Todd Bowles’ Defence has looked risky at times but has been incredibly effective, especially with so many of the unit’s top players out injured. His visionary Defence tactics – playing a group of Safeties that are big & ugly enough to fill in at Line-backer – has totally taken the advantage away from the ‘no-huddle’ Offences, an approach I believe will become commonplace in future NFL seasons.
So can the Cardinals reach a Super bowl that is being held in Arizona? Despite my love for this plucky team I just can’t see them beating the likes of the Green Bay Packers, who’s recent form has been unbelievable. Even this week, I’ve bet against the Cardinals beating the Seahawks – winning at Century Link is one of the hardest things to do in the league. Yet, even though I’m consistently proved wrong about the Cardinals, I would want nothing more than for them to play in a home town Super Bowl.
For more from Dan, visit www.gridirongentlemen.com