The Arizona Cardinals have a complex about playing one game at a time. You know, fulfilling the old cliché, focusing on the next opponent, staying the course, playing through the process. For parts of the last two seasons, this franchise â- so accustomed to losing -- has at times gotten too wrapped up in the expectations of its own success.
That's why, now that they're riding high after a slow start -- a three-game winning streak dotted, for now, with an impressive road victory over the New York Giants -- these next few weeks might actually tell us who and what this talented team really is.
Could they, would they actually make it to the playoffs again and laugh in the face of the curse of the Super Bowl losers, who've routinely plummeted to non-postseason lows after playing for the Lombardi Trophy? Or will they level off and make way for the next surprise team to fill the glass shoe they wore to Super Bowl XLIII?
"There were a lot of expectations on our team after going to the Super Bowl and winning the NFC," coach Ken Whisenhunt said about Arizona's 1-2 start that has been flipped to a 4-2 record over the past month. "We were sensitive to the fact that a lot of people thought we were a fluke team. The first couple of games we were playing with the idea of trying to be too perfect.
"We were trying to be that team that didn't make any mistakes and when we did, it just crushed us. We didn't handle it well. After the loss to Indy, we had a bye and had an opportunity to look at things and we figured it out. When we played our best football last year is when we didn't have anything to lose. We've gotten back to that mentality. We're flying around and having fun. We're not so uptight about having to make the perfect play."
With consecutive victories over Houston, Seattle and the Giants, Arizona has moved to the top of the NFC West. It's not like the Cardinals got fat on wounded or worthless opponents. In that span, they've averaged 26.3 points and generated seven turnovers.
Carolina, Chicago, Seattle and St. Louis are up next. If the Cardinals do to those teams what Indianapolis, New England, Pittsburgh and New Orleans likely would do to those teams, Arizona can no longer be cast as just another team. They'll be rightfully viewed as one on the rise, with a coach who knows how to reach his players and players who can be as wondrous to watch on any given day as any in the league.
Perception is everything and that's where Whisenhunt and the Cardinals have managed to find their answers.
The recent spike is the second time in less than a year that Whisenhunt has gotten the Cardinals to look in the mirror and understand what's staring back is a pretty solid football club.
When they disgraced themselves in a 47-7 loss to New England after they'd already sewn up a playoff bid, Whisenhunt didn't ask his players if they wanted to just get to the postseason and wear that as a badge of honor. He put them in full pads and made them pound the false arrogance and lethargy out of each other.
They responded with a season-ending victory over the Seahawks and a playoff run that made us all take notice of a group of players that did wonders for our fantasy leagues but otherwise barely made us look at the box scores. Now, Whisenhunt thinks the Cardinals are on the same track. There is nothing about the physical and efficient way they took down the Giants Sunday to make anyone think otherwise -- unless they mishandle success and expectations.
"Every team is trying to get to the point that can reproduce (success) every week," Whisenhunt said. "There have been some teams -- Pittsburgh, New England, Indianapolis -- that have shown they can, for the most part. We're making strides to do that. In order to get to that point you've got to go through some things. Our team has shown that we can rally together and stick together and come through some things. That's a sign that at some point we can establish some consistency."
Somehow, Whisenhunt has reached his players. Anquan Boldin and standout defensive tackle Darnell Dockett have spent months publicly trying to angle for contract extensions and trades. Yet each has played his guts out and played through injuries to help their team win. When it's time to play ball, it's time to play ball.
Quarterback Kurt Warner is also still getting it done. While fellow aged playoff quarterbacks Jake Delhomme and Kerry Collins have two combined wins between them and are in serious danger of being benched for younger players, Warner is still playing at a high level. It's still too early to say that, at 38, he's not going to fade or get hurt. However, he's beaten the odds -- and his own history of inconsistency and health issues -- to remain an example on a team that many are expecting to falter but is steadily confirming its legitimacy as something more than a one-hit wonder.
"He's constantly trying to prove he's one of the better players in the league and that's his makeup," Whisenhunt said.
He's not the only one. Safeties Antrel Rolle and Adrian Wilson, linebacker Karlos Dansby, third wideout Steve Breaston and a handful of others are pushing to establish themselves as more than sidekicks. The talent on the team is rich, as it should be since Arizona's lengthy futility has allowed it some of the first chances to obtain high draft picks.
Arizona is still flawed -- the Cardinals rank last in rushing again, despite attempts to upgrade that part of the offense by using their first-round pick last April to select running back Beanie Wells. And they still allow big plays on defense. They are a work in progress, with progress being the key.
"It's still early but we are improving," Whisenhunt said. "We see improvement."