Take a look at the way conventional wisdom about the best team in football has changed in the first two months of the season, and you can see why many believe NFL really stands for "Not For Long."
Seattle looked unbeatable during the season opener ... but the Seahawks were soon displaced by a salty Cincinnati team ... which then gave way to San Diego and Denver as the quarter-pole favorites. Most recently, the formidable Dallas Cowboys had their time in the sun. The chinks in the armor of all those teams have since been revealed.
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With those caveats in mind, I'm going to boldly predict here that the latest ascendant team, the Arizona Cardinals (the only one-loss team left in the NFL), is not a passing fad. This team is for real.
Even as I type that, I'm tempted to multi-tap the delete key, because let's face it: It just doesn't sound right. The last time the Cardinals had the best record in the NFL at the end of Week 9 was 1966, when Lyndon Johnson was President, the Oscar for Best Picture went to "The Sound of Music," the No. 1 song was "Cherish" by The Association and a gallon of gas cost 32 cents. Charley Johnson was the quarterback for those Cardinals, Johnny Roland the leading rusher, and Hall of Famer Larry Wilson patrolled the secondary. Oh, and they were known as the St. Louis FootballCardinals.
The Cardinals went 10-6 last year but remained under the radar, since they didn't qualify for the playoffs. With their 7-1 start this season, though, they've now gone 14-3 over their past 17 games. They have already swept the NFC East, including the most recent "dominant" team (Dallas) and the current No. 3 seed in the conference (Philadelphia).
And Arizona has done all of this despite a bevy of personnel losses that would have crippled most other teams. The defense, which ranks fifth in point allowed, is missing Darnell Dockett, Daryl Washington and John Abraham. The Cardinals have been forced to play three games with their backup quarterbacks, Drew Stanton and Logan Thomas, going 2-1 in the process, with their single loss coming on the road to the Broncos.
From a coach's perspective, they look legit. Here are some key reasons why:
Balance: Let's start with the cold, hard facts. The Cardinals are statistically good, particularly on defense, in all the key areas you want to be good to sustain success. As mentioned above, they're stingy when it comes to giving up points, allowing just 19.5 per game. Furthermore, they rank third in the NFL in rushing defense, forcing lots of third-and-longs -- and in those situations (third-and-7-plus), they rank fourth in the league. They're tied for ninth in red-zone defense and rank second in turnover differential (plus-10). Offensively, they're fifth in third-down conversion rate and have yielded just 13 sacks (the fifth-lowest total in football). In short, Arizona's a smart, opportunistic team that doesn't make a lot of mistakes.
A prime secondary: Arizona boasts one of the best sets of defensive backs in the NFL with Patrick Peterson, Antonio Cromartie and the emerging Tyrann Mathieu -- along with their rookie first-round pick, Deone Bucannon. This allows defensive coordinator Todd Bowles -- remember that name, because it will be a prominent one when teams start looking for new head coaches in January -- to relentlessly hunt the opposing quarterback, with confidence in his secondary. Currently, no team in football blitzes more than Arizona. And the Cardinals will keep bringing the heat: Beyond the Detroit Lions and Atlanta Falcons (both ranked in the top 10 in passing offense), no one on the remaining schedule ranks higher than 22nd in passing.
A manageable schedule: The Cardinals are 10-2 at home over the past two years -- and three of their four toughest remaining games are at University of Phoenix Stadium (Detroit, Kansas City and Seattle). Two of their remaining four road games: against the hapless Falcons and at St. Louis. The Cards do have to play the Seahawks on the road, but they can draw on the fact that they were the only team to beat the Super Bowl champions at CenturyLink Field last season.
Experience at the top: Take a look at the offensive brain trust: Quarterback Carson Palmer (12 years in the league), offensive consultant Tom Moore (38 years) and head coach Bruce Arians (22 years) have more than seven decades of collective NFL experience, and the savvy that comes along with all those pro campaigns. None of them expected to be in this position, and all have the maturity to appreciate the renaissance they're experiencing. Palmer had already been through Oakland, where quarterbacks go to die, when Arians tapped him to be a starter in Arizona, where he finds himself surrounded with more weapons than he's had in nearly a decade. Arians was on the way to Hilton Head, South Carolina, with his wife after the Steelers chose to not renew his contract as offensive coordinator following the 2011 season ... only to be lured to Indianapolis for the OC job under Chuck Pagano. When Pagano was diagnosed with leukemia just a few games into the 2012 campaign, Arians filled in so ably he earned Coach of the Year honors and got his first NFL crack at head coaching in 2013. Arians brought in the crusty, brilliant Moore, whose quarterback-coaching résumé stretches back through the Peyton Manning-era Colts all the way to the Terry Bradshaw Steelers of the 1970s.
Swagger: The Cardinals are playing loose and with a confidence bordering on arrogance. You don't necessarily want your guys making "Super Bowl Shuffle" videos, but you do like that authentic sense of self-assurance. As Former Secretary of State Colin Powell put it, "Perpetual optimism is a force multiplier." I saw it with my Baltimore Ravens the year we marched to the Super Bowl. They went from hoping they'd win games to knowing they were going to win games, and that can make a crucial difference. "Swagger is a true belief," was how Arians put it to the assembled media, one day after his Cardinals knocked off the Cowboys in Dallas. "I think guys that talk a lot sometimes are trying to talk themselves into it. You watch for that. But our guys, I don't see any cockiness in our football team. I see a true belief that we're going to win every week."
With all that said, I'm still keeping one eye on the delete button. But with the performance the Cardinals have put forth in the first half of the season, you have to view Arizona as a serious candidate to become the first-ever team to qualify for a Super Bowl in its home stadium. There will be hiccups along the way, but unlike some of the other teams that have been riding high at times this year, the Cardinals look like a real contender, not a mere pretender.