GLENDALE, Ariz. -- When Patrick Peterson takes the field Thursday night at University of Phoenix Stadium, the Arizona Cardinals' third-year cornerback will put his considerable talents on display for 63,000 fans and millions of NFL Network viewers.
Yet there's one particularly exacting observer he's truly hoping to impress.
Peterson knows that as he heads home following the Cardinals' clash against the Seattle Seahawks, he'll get a detailed breakdown from his wife, Antonique, a first-year medical-school student who grades on a stringent curve.
"We're very competitive," Peterson said in a telephone interview earlier this week. "She's doing something great in her field, and she challenges me each and every Sunday to do well. She sends me speeches before every game, and afterward, she gives me a grade.
"If she's at the game, she'll even take notes. Then, on my way home, she'll say, 'What happened on this play?' and we'll go over everything. She gets pretty down and dirty, but I love it. She's my eye in the sky. And I figure that if I let her down, I'm probably going to let my teammates down, too."
That's not likely, as less than 2½ years into his NFL career, Peterson already has ascended to the top of his profession. After making the Pro Bowl in his rookie year as a return man -- he took four punts to the house (including a 99-yard game-winner in overtime), tying the league's single-season record -- Peterson raised his game to a new level in 2012, going back to Hawaii as a cornerback last January. He has been even better this season, with three interceptions in his first six games.
In September, first-year Cardinals coach Bruce Arians referred to Peterson as the best cornerback in the league, a contention with which the former LSU star agreed earlier this month. Peterson's elite speed, impressive coverage skills and ever-improving technique support the cause. At the very least, he is in the conversation -- along with perennial All-Pro Darrelle Revis of the Buccaneers and the Seahawks' emerging star, 2012 All-Pro Richard Sherman -- about who is the current King of the Corners.
Peterson certainly is the toast of the desert, where he has earned the acclaim of teammates such as star receiver Larry Fitzgerald and served as a mentor to impressive rookie safety Tyrann Mathieu, Peterson's former LSU teammate who slipped to the third round in last April's NFL draft after dealing with well-documented disciplinary issues linked to his admitted marijuana use in college.
"Tyrann might be our best tackler on defense, and he's been an incredible addition to our team -- and having Patrick here has a lot to do with that," Cardinals general manager Steve Keim said. "We knew Patrick could be a mentor, a great influence and a model for how to conduct yourself, on and off the field. He's insanely talented, and he's so driven. He wants to get better and better and to be a professional in every way."
Fitzgerald, who heralded Peterson's arrival as the fifth overall pick when I watched the 2011 NFL Draft at his plush abode, has not been disappointed in the least.
"He is self-motivated and wants to be the best," Fitzgerald said earlier this week of Peterson. "He relishes the opportunity to cover a team's best wideout. He is humble and comes from a great family. He's mature beyond his years, personally and professionally ... the kind of player and person you want as the face of your franchise. He makes us all better going against him daily."
Such glowing praise is typical from people in close contact with Peterson, who moonlights as a receiver and even threw a 17-yard pass to wideout Kerry Taylor in the Cardinals' Week 2 victory over the Detroit Lions. "He can throw a football 70 yards flat-footed -- I swear," Keim said. "The guy's incredible."
Perhaps even more freakish has been Peterson's quick path to proficiency on the golf links -- after essentially teaching himself the game a couple of years ago. Following one frustrating lesson, Peterson went his own route, and his growth curve has been sharper than a saguaro cactus spine.
"I was watching golf for a while before I picked up a club," Peterson said. "I took one lesson, but I didn't really like the way the guy was teaching me. So I dropped him and started going in my backyard, which is kind of like a mini golf resort. And I did kinda teach myself. I had a little bit of everything -- books, teaching tapes, videos. And I started getting better and better.
"The only thing I have to get straightened out is my putting. I can hit it down the center of the fairway about 75 percent of the time, and I can reach the green in regulation about 60 to 70 percent of the time. Getting the ball in the hole is my problem."
Well, not that much of a problem. His standards, as with football, are somewhat skewed. In classic Peterson fashion, he frequently tests his game against Cardinals kicker Jay Feely, one of the league's better golfers.
"Last year we played, and he was a beginner," Feely said. "This year we played, and I was stunned. I said, 'Pat, what the hell happened?' He takes it very seriously, doesn't talk much during a round."
Said Fitzgerald: "Yeah, he is damn good. He shot an 85 at Pinehurst No. 2 a few weeks ago when we all played there from the tips. He can ball. He would be good at anything he put his mind to."
He's as gifted with a pole as he is with a stick. Peterson, a native of Pompano Beach, Fla., recalled that the first time his father, Patrick Sr., took him deep-sea fishing, "I caught 14 snappers, something he'd never done before. I've caught three sharks, groupers, tuna, shellfish, kingfish ... I was brought up being the oldest, and my dad just taught me how to do everything."
Patrick Sr. also played a role in helping Mathieu, the defensive back known to many as "the Honey Badger," get his act together last fall after having been kicked off the LSU team by coach Les Miles. At Peterson Jr.'s urging, Mathieu, a former Heisman Trophy finalist whose NFL hopes hung in the balance, relocated to Pompano Beach and lived with Peterson's parents.
Patrick Sr., who'd pulled his son out of high school football as a sophomore because Patrick Jr.'s grades dropped below his previously decreed standard, took Mathieu fishing and jet skiing and conducted long, grueling training sessions. "He's like my son," Patrick Sr. said of Mathieu in an interview with NFL Network last week.
And Patrick Jr., just 23, is a big-brother figure to Mathieu, a player he said is "such a valuable part of this defense, it's not even funny."
Peterson's far-reaching value to Arizona is tough to quantify. In Thursday night's showdown with the Seahawks, he'll not only display his skills on alternate series against those of Sherman, he also might go head-to-head with his rival as a receiver.
"Maybe I will," Peterson said, laughing. "Be careful what you wish for."
Sherman's lighthearted response, via text message: "Yeah, I will pick him off."
If Sherman does, indeed, grab hold of a Carson Palmer pass intended for Peterson, it will make for a less pleasant ride home. Antonique, who met Peterson when they were LSU students, is an aspiring doctor of osteopathy who's attending med school at Midwestern University in Glendale -- with a de facto minor in Football 101.
"I talk so much football with her," Peterson said, "so she has a good idea of what I need to do. Before the game, she'll say, 'Make sure you're being patient at the line of scrimmage. Use your hands. Be physical toward the receiver.' We have a deal, each and every Sunday -- I don't want the receiver to catch 50 yards on me, and she reminds me of that."
And after games, though Antonique's critiques can sometimes be brutal, Peterson appreciates the feedback.
"I argued with her maybe once about my overall grade," he said, "but she's pretty on point. Being in med school, she gets graded pretty tough, too. And I'm definitely hard on myself, in football and everyday life, so I appreciate it."
So do Peterson's teammates -- on so many levels.
Follow Michael Silver on Twitter @MikeSilver.