ARLINGTON, Texas -- The pass sailed directly over the blue-and-white star in the center of the AT&T Stadium turf, and a split-second after Carson Palmer released it, he had that sinking feeling that all quarterbacks loathe. And for good reason: Rookie cornerback Tyler Patmon stepped in front of intended target Michael Floyd, sliced to his left and sped down the visitors' sideline for a 58-yard touchdown, setting off a Texas-sized celebration.
As Patmon skipped across the goal line to give the Dallas Cowboys a quick lead over the Arizona Cardinals four minutes into Sunday's showdown between two of the NFL's midseason surprises, Palmer tuned out the roar of 85,688 fans -- and the temptation to feel star-crossed or stressed -- and prepared to craft a comeback.
His teammates, as per recent custom, were right there with him.
Shaking off a 10-0 first-quarter deficit, Palmer proceeded to throw a trio of touchdown passes as the Cardinals rolled off 28 unanswered points and cruised to a 28-17 victory. At this point, it hardly raised an eyebrow: Halfway through a season that seemed doomed before it began, Arizona (7-1) has the NFL's best record and appears to be getting better by the week.
Once again on Sunday, this team confronted adversity, chewed it up and spit it out underneath the Gatorade bucket on the sidelines. If you haven't been paying attention, you might want to start drinking it all in -- for it's becoming abundantly clear that when confronted with tough circumstances, this is what the Cardinals do.
"No one freaks out," Palmer said Sunday as he rode the team bus to the airport. "We're just even-keeled and focused. We're very resilient and always feel we're going to win."
That they've won at a higher rate than any of their competitors is somewhat shocking, given all the talented players who aren't on the field. After a promising 2013 season that saw the Cardinals go 10-6 and just miss the playoffs under first-year coach Bruce Arians, Arizona suffered a series of significant setbacks: Inside linebacker Karlos Dansbydeparted for the Browns via free agency. Fellow inside 'backer Daryl Washington was hit with a year-long suspension for violating the NFL's substance-abuse policy. Defensive tackle Darnell Dockett suffered a season-ending knee injury during a preseason practice. Star pass rusher John Abraham went on season-ending injured reserve after suffering a concussion in the regular-season opener.
Despite those losses -- and shorter-term injuries to key players like Palmer and defensive end Calais Campbell -- the Cardinals have persevered and prospered. Their only blemish occurred in an Oct. 5 road defeat to the Broncos, in which third-string quarterback Logan Thomas played most of the second half. Meanwhile, they've defeated the Chargers, 49ers, Raiders and, as of Sunday, the entire NFC East.
Given all they've overcome, did you really think a pick-six was going to make them flinch?
"There were times over the years when something like that would happen and you could see guys thinking, 'Here we go again,' " said Steve Keim, the Cardinals' shrewd and audacious second-year general manager, who ascended to that job after 15 years in the team's front office. "Maybe the 'Old Cardinals' did that. These guys rally. They have a tremendous air of confidence, even when things get rough. It's been amazing."
Keim, named the 2013 NFL executive of the year by ProFootballTalk.com, has made a multitude of magnificent moves since being promoted to GM, but there's no question who his best acquisition was: Arians, whose fill-in stint for ailing Indianapolis Colts coach Chuck Pagano during the 2012 season earned him NFL Coach of the Year honors. A year after having been shoved into an alleged retirement by the Pittsburgh Steelers, where he'd spent the previous five seasons as offensive coordinator, Arians came to the desert and brought a no-nonsense bravado that has filtered down to the rank and file.
If only the league would consent to let him rock his trademark Kangol hats as part of his Sunday attire, the 62-year-old Arians would rival former boss Mike Tomlin in terms of serious sideline swagger.
"BA's like a brother, dad, coach, best friend -- all of that," Dockett said after Sunday's game, where he served as a charged-up cheerleader. "He don't give a (damn). But no matter how hard he is on you, he's gonna always have your back."
Arians has an eclectic group of assistants who've helped his cause -- most prominently defensive coordinator Todd Bowles, whose blitz-happy scheme has helped the Cardinals thrive in the absence of so many key performers. "Todd Bowles is great -- I hope he stays, because we're going to be so good next year," Dockett said, with an air of resignation in his voice: He knows that in a couple of months, Bowles is likely to be among the hottest candidates for the league's head-coaching vacancies.
"Todd Bowles has done a great job masking limitations and catering to players' strengths, and putting them in position to succeed," Keim said. "And Bruce is just tremendous. Some people may view him as a 'players' coach,' but throughout the week, he's tough on these guys. He grinds them and holds them highly accountable. He coaches them hard. And yet they want to play hard for him. It's a unique quality in a coach."
Obviously, the Cardinals have some quality players -- even if many of them have less name-recognition than last season's American Idol Top 12.
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Consider that Palmer's first touchdown pass went to tight end John Carlson and his second was caught by second-year pro Jaron Brown -- not to be confused with dynamic rookie receiver John Brown, whose late 75-yard touchdown catch propelled Arizona to a dramatic victory over the Eagles last Sunday. Another rookie, safety Deone Bucannon, was among the defensive standouts who helped swallow up a Dallas offense being guided by backup quarterback Brandon Weeden. And Bucannon's second-year counterpart, Tyrann (Honey Badger) Mathieu, had one of the team's two interceptions.
Then there are Keim's prescient free-agent acquisitions, many of them bargain-bin signings on one-year contracts, who've contributed mightily on the field and in the locker room. Included in this group are ninth-year cornerback Antonio Cromartie, a former Pro Bowl pick discarded by the New York Jets, who had a fourth-quarter interception on Sunday; 34-year-old inside linebacker Larry Foote, coming off his second stint with the Pittsburgh Steelers, and 33-year-old defensive tackle Tommy Kelly, released in August by the New England Patriots.
"Tell Bill (Belichick) I said, 'Thank you,' " said Brentson Buckner, the Cardinals' second-year defensive line coach, as he left the field. "Kelly's been great for us. One man's trash is another man's treasure."
Said Kelly: "They say everything happens for a reason. I'm happy -- they work me hard but they treat me nice ... and no snow! It's a great group. We believe in each other. We believe in our scheme. And even with some big-time losses, we still feel we've got enough to get it done."
So what, exactly, is the special sauce that's helped the Cardinals do so well? Boring as it might sound, it includes old-fashioned, hard-to-quantify attributes like chemistry, unselfishness, mutual accountability and a conviction that no one is irreplaceable. Add it all up, and you've got resilience and relentless pursuit of a greater goal.
"It's awesome to be here. I feel so fortunate to be a part of it. It's just a bunch of guys all pulling on the same rope, with a huge belief in each other and a great bond."
As for the longest-tenured and highest-profile Cardinals player, perennial Pro Bowl receiver Larry Fitzgerald -- well, he's buying into Arians' program as much as anyone. With five receptions for 70 yards on Sunday, Fitzgerald continued a season in which he has received fewer targets, but a whole lot of satisfaction.
"We're just a band of brothers," Fitzgerald said as he dressed at his locker following Sunday's victory. "We really believe in each other. We fight for each other. This is one of the most unselfish groups I've ever been around. We don't care who gets the glory. We just want to win." As Fitzgerald spoke, he noticed Floyd, who was dressing at an adjacent locker, struggling to get his left arm into a blazer -- and stopped mid-sentence. "Here you go," Fitzgerald told the third-year player, pulling back the sleeve so that Floyd's slightly bent arm could slide inside.
Was this a case of a savvy veteran helping an injured teammate through a painful dressing session?
"Nah, no injury," Floyd said, smiling. "We just help each other out."
So far, against all odds, the Cardinals have helped themselves to seven victories. Whatever adversity they might encounter in the second half of the season, Arians and his players aren't likely to shrivel up and slink away.