Arizona Cardinals  

 

Bruce Arians' Arizona Cardinals are NFL's most fascinating team

The game of the week in the NFL features the most fascinating team in the league.

No, I'm not talking about that game in New England between the two legendary quarterbacks; it's the Bruce Arians Bowl, featuring the Indianapolis Colts and the increasingly captivating Arizona Cardinals.

It's not that I like what the Cardinals are doing -- it's that I love it. I'm proudly obsessed with this 6-4 squad. The dominant defense makes game-changing plays (with 22 takeaways, Arizona is tied for fourth in the NFL). The offense, even with holes on the line and a quarterback past his prime, can hum when the ball isn't being turned over.

Those of you who haven't been paying attention should know that the Cardinals have a realistic chance to crash the playoff party, especially if they win this weekend. Selfishly, I'm pulling for one of the most fun teams in the league to root for.

The Cardinals' defense is fantastic and grossly underrated. Their defensive line, anchored by Darnell Dockett and Calais Campbell, is stout. Arizona gives up just 81.4 rushing yards per game, second fewest in the league.

Daryl Washington is one of the best linebackers in the NFL. Since returning from a four-game suspension, Washington has terrorized opponents with his greatness and omnipresence, becoming one of just three players in the league with eight or more pass deflections, two or more sacks and at least two picks. John Abraham, meanwhile, has been a force who still has plenty of gas left in the tank, as evidenced by the seven sacks and three forced fumbles he recorded in his past four games. He's also a matchup nightmare for any offensive line. And Karlos Dansby has been steady all season.

As Campbell told me on my SiriusXM Radio show, "Schein on Sports," a few days ago, "There's no better feeling as a defensive lineman when you know that, when you rush the passer, that your defense is going to pay it off at the back end."

And that's what the Cardinals do with a deep and strong defensive backfield. It's been amazing to watch rookie safety Tyrann Mathieu, about whom I wrote earlier this year, grow as a person -- and become a ballhawking, tackling machine. Top-notch cornerback Patrick Peterson, meanwhile, has three picks and a great knack for the game.

If there's anything to worry about with this team, it's the offense.

Carson Palmer played his best game of the year last week, throwing for 419 yards without giving up an interception -- marking his first pick-free outing of 2013. The veteran quarterback has more interceptions (15) than touchdown passes (14) on the season. He's given up two or more picks in an unacceptable five games, dooming the Cardinals in three losses.

But Palmer also has no fear, making him a good fit for coach Bruce Arians, who runs his team and his offense in that style. Receiver Larry Fitzgerald, meanwhile, is back to being relevant after being wasted last season by Arizona's three-headed monster of signal-calling futility. Michael Floyd has picked up his play this year after a frustrating rookie campaign. And while the offensive line will never be confused with the Hogs in Washington, the run game has picked up of late behind Andre Ellington (Sunday's subpar effort notwithstanding).

This squad plays with an attitude and a swagger that stems from Arians. It reads trite and sounds cliché, but it is true, a notion that Campbell stressed when we spoke. Arians and general manager Steve Keim have put together a roster of true football players who play hard, smart and tough. It's what makes this Cardinals team, on a three-game winning streak and playing with confidence, tick.

Of course, it won't be easy to keep that streak going against a Colts program that Arians helped build up last season, superbly filling in on an interim basis while Indy coach Chuck Pagano battled cancer. All Arians did was lead the Colts to a 9-3 record (the team finished 11-5 overall before losing in the first round of the playoffs), develop the great Andrew Luck into a rookie gunslinger and win the Coach of the Year Award.

Now Arians' current team has to help destroy the monster he helped create. And I think the Cardinals are up for the challenge.

It's always tough to face Luck, who I think is amazing. Before the season, I wrote that I'd take Luck over all the other quarterbacks in their second and third years in the NFL, and he's backed up my claim with a knack for the comeback. In his short career, Luck has led 10 game-winning drives, the most by a quarterback in his first two seasons. Though the Colts were down 14-0 in Tennessee last Thursday, you never thought they were out of it, and that's because of their quarterback. Lo and behold, Indy won 30-27.

And yet, as much as I like Luck, I love how Arizona's defense matches up with his team. I think the members of the Cardinals' defensive line will push around their Colts counterparts. Again, Arizona has the second-ranked run defense. Indianapolis running back Trent Richardson has been stuck in the mud since he came over from Cleveland in a trade; there's no way he gets going against Arizona. Donald Brown did run for 80 yards last week for the Colts, but I'd be floored if he got remotely close to that number Sunday.

Can you imagine if the refs had gotten it right in the Patriots-Panthers game on Monday and the pass interference/mugging by Carolina's Luke Kuechly had been called for a penalty? What would have happened if New England had scored on the next play? Well, for one thing, the Cardinals and Panthers would have identical records -- and the Cards would have the tiebreaker against Carolina, thanks to a head-to-head win earlier this season. Arizona has also beaten Detroit. Those are the kinds of wins that can come in handy when the wheel stops spinning.

The Cardinals' schedule the rest of the way is tough, definitely tougher than those of the other teams -- including the 49ers, Bears, Lions, Panthers and Packers -- in the NFC wild-card fight. After Sunday's homer against Indy, the Cards head to Philly, host St. Louis and have road trips to Tennessee and Seattle before hosting San Francisco to end the season. Their defense gives them a chance to survive, even against the three NFC West rivals they've already lost to. Still, the imposing slate underscores the necessity of holding off a seven-win Colts team this weekend in what will be a gigantic game.

Yes, I love watching this defense, Larry Fitzgerald and the Arians/Keim stamp in action, but I also acknowledge the difficult road ahead. The Cardinals might fall a dollar short of the playoffs -- though if they do, they might be able to pluck a new young quarterback out of the first round of May's draft to help them compete in what is the toughest division in the league, bar none.

The bottom line is, if you haven't paid attention to the Cards yet this year -- or if you're still thinking of last season's tough-to-follow squad -- start watching. Trust me: You'll be fascinated.

Follow Adam Schein on Twitter @AdamSchein.

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