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Eagles may deny it, but Cards' O-line is secret weapon

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PHILADELPHIA -- Eagles defensive end Cedric Thornton tried his best to replay the previous 60 minutes of football and come up with something nice to say about the Arizona Cardinals' offensive line.

Philadelphia was gouged for 230 rushing yards on Sunday night, including a 47-yard Beast Mode redux by rookie David Johnson. It was the 10th time this season Arizona has gone over 100 yards rushing in a game, and the fifth time the Cards have topped 120 yards. They are the No. 6 rushing offense in the league. Jared Veldheer and Mike Iupati should both find themselves in the Pro Bowl. And statistics like that are usually accompanied by hyperbole. The brilliant blocking scheme or the road-grating tackles. Offensive lines are perennially underappreciated, but in the age of analytics, certainly Thornton wouldn't have to try too hard.

"When I was able to strike a person, I was definitely dominant. But as far as up front? Arizona? I didn't see nothing special about them," Thornton said after the 40-17 loss. "They're definitely 12-2 or whatever, they have a great team, a good correlation up front, but nothing really special. They got a great center, A.Q. Shipley, he used to play here. Great talent. Massie, I guess he's pretty straight."

Okay, then.

The Cardinals managed to define themselves this season by producing a different hero every week. John Brown gives way to Larry Fitzgerald who gives way to Chris Johnson who gives way to David Johnson. But in that egalitarian construct, their line manages to continuously fly below the radar, covering up a network of unsung heroes that have paved the way for a legitimate Super Bowl contender.

Sunday night's running game plan was created over a week of meetings by assistant offensive line coach Larry Zierlein, offensive coordinator Harold Goodwin, running backs coach Stump Mitchell and tight ends coach Rick Christophel. It represented a perfect understanding of the offensive line, and how the Eagles would try and attack them. Some of these coaches should be running their own teams, and some of them will.

"They had a great one tonight," Bruce Arians said.

But the line remains in a place where they are either actively deflective of praise - quarterback Carson Palmer has called them livesaving and fantastic and spectacular and phenomenal during interviews this season - or they are generally surprised when it comes their way.

When a reporter suggested that the line had been "killing people" up front all year, Iupati smiled, looked down at a row of fellow linemen at the lockers next to him, and said "We did? Oh. Well, thank you!"

"It's all about unity man," he said. "We're on the same page. We're close. It's good, we're a family out there."

Iupati has been hesitant to draw comparisons to the 49er teams he's played on in the past, especially the Super Bowl contenders. He knows how quickly a good thing can change, but he also knows what the relationship across an offensive line needs to feel like in order to work. He knows this year's team is that special.

"That's what makes a really good team," he said. "Camaraderie is good. We get along. Everyone is on the same page."

He added: "It's pretty much the same great group of guys. It's all about respect, you just respect each other and do your job."

The great irony for the Cardinals' offensive line is that they could be most commonly associated with Johnson's 47-yard run from Sunday, which featured most of the Arizona front five spilling onto the turf. Johnson broke five tackles on his way to the end zone, and capped the phenomenal effort with a stiff arm ready-made for slow-motion replay.

Iupati could not break down the play because he could only see grass spilling into his facemask.

But maybe that's the way Arizona prefers it; anonymous to a point, and dominant against players who don't expect them to be every week.

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