As the Arizona Cardinals trudged off their home field following a thoroughly demoralizing "Thursday Night Football" defeat to the Seattle Seahawks last month, Larry Fitzgerald had that old, sinking feeling.
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Sitting at 3-4 and staring at a fourth consecutive non-winning season, the radiant but often overshadowed receiver recognized where things were headed absent a swift and dramatic U-turn.
"We knew if we continued going at the pace we were going, we'd be sitting there in January looking at everybody else playing in the playoffs -- again," Fitzgerald said Sunday night. "The defense was playing good football; we (as an offense) needed to pick it up. And guys did. And here we are."
Thanks to an attitude adjustment that attracted very little national attention until Sunday afternoon, when two early Fitzgerald touchdown catches propelled the Cardinals to a 40-11 victory over the Indianapolis Colts at University of Phoenix Stadium, Arizona has injected itself into the postseason conversation.
With a four-game winning streak and a half-game lead over San Francisco (heading into the 49ers' Monday night game against the Washington Redskins) in the race for the NFC's second wild-card spot, the Cardinals (7-4) are starting to believe in the potential that has been relentlessly trumpeted by their first-year coach, Bruce Arians.
"Bruce, coming out of training camp, told us, 'Hey, you guys, we're a good team,' " veteran offensive tackle Eric Winston said Sunday night as he celebrated with teammates and family members in the stadium parking lot. "He saw it before anybody else. Yet, until very recently, I don't know if guys believed it yet.
"I think Bruce had to convince us we can win these big games. He told us, 'You know what? We can beat good teams. And if you don't know, you should now.' "
In dismantling a struggling but potent Colts team, Arians gained a measure of personal satisfaction: Last season in Indy, the longtime offensive assistant got his first head-coaching stint under ominous circumstances, spending most of the season as the interim replacement for cancer-stricken boss Chuck Pagano -- and earning NFL Coach of the Year honors after leading the Colts to nine victories in 12 games and an unlikely playoff appearance.
"We've kind of had to figure out how good we can be," Winston said. "Now that we've done that, I think we have a little swag. And we can play a lot better. Nobody walked out of the locker room today saying, 'You know what? I played very well ...' Everybody's trying to take it to a higher level."
The game was a fiasco from an offensive perspective: By the end of the third quarter, the Cardinals trailed by 18 points and had managed just 130 total yards. Sacked seven times and intercepted once, quarterback Carson Palmer looked like he might be headed for the bench -- and another retirement announcement. Winston and his fellow offensive linemen were a mess, having failed to protect their 33-year-old quarterback and having generated no rushing play of longer than 6 yards.
"People wanted to point the finger at Carson and the offensive line," Winston recalled. "We all deserved some of it. But no one said, 'I'm doing all I can do.'
"We all took ownership. Everyone on offense took a look at ourselves and said, 'We're gonna regroup. Let's go to practice. Let's work.' We practiced in pads a few times those next couple of weeks, including once during our bye week, and focused on our technique. No one balked. No one shied away from the challenge. No one was bitching about getting that pad work in."
The Arizona team that took the field against Indy on Sunday bore little resemblance to the struggling ensemble that got owned in its home stadium by the Seahawks five weeks earlier.
Palmer, performing in what he described afterward to reporters as a "respect game," completed 26 of 37 passes for 314 yards with no interceptions. His scoring strikes to Fitzgerald of 4 and 26 yards, which staked Arizona to a 14-3 lead, helped the 30-year-old surpass Randy Moss as the youngest player to amass 11,000 career receiving yards. Fitzgerald's prodigy, emerging second-year wideout Michael Floyd, had a big day with 104 yards on seven catches, and backs Rashard Mendenhall and Andre Ellington combined to run for another 104.
The Cardinals' defense, which includes studs like cornerback Patrick Peterson, defensive tackle Darnell Dockett and pass rusher Calais Campbell, imposed itself quite forcefully on Colts quarterback Andrew Luck. And when linebacker Karlos Dansby intercepted a second-quarter pass and raced 22 yards for a touchdown, it represented his first end-zone trip since he clinched an epic playoff victory over the Green Bay Packers in January 2010.
Arizona, which the previous February had been 35 seconds away from a championship in its first Super Bowl appearance, hasn't come close to tasting postseason satisfaction since that '09 wild-card game. The week after that rollicking afternoon in the desert, the Cardinals got crushed by the Saints, and the team essentially fell apart in the wake of quarterback Kurt Warner's retirement. Among the standouts to leave the Cardinals was Dansby, who signed a free-agent deal with the Dolphins, with whom he spent three seasons before returning to Arizona in May.
Fitzgerald, who emerged as a superstar during that Super Bowl run, has seen his stats suffer and his Q-rating fizzle while hooking up with a series of subpar quarterbacks who struggled to succeed Warner. To say Fitzgerald is enthused by the Cards' recent revival would be a vast understatement.
"Man, it's unimaginable to think how tough it's been the last few years not to participate in the playoffs," he said. "That is behind us now. It's been tumultuous times, but it's great to be able to control our own destiny. Everybody believes in themselves. We never lost hope in anybody on our squad."
In retrospect, the Cardinals' four 2013 defeats are defensible -- setbacks to the NFC South-leading Saints and each of their three NFC West rivals. With another crack at all three division opponents, including a potentially pivotal Dec. 29 home game against the 49ers to close the regular season, Fitzgerald and his teammates have a chance to spend January as something more than spectators.
"That would be a dream come true," Fitzgerald said. "Hopefully, we can make it happen."
For now, the Cardinals are making a run up our weekly, inquisition-laced totem pole of NFL significance:
8) Arizona Cardinals: When Darnell Dockett says there's "no option" other than the Cards making the playoffs, is his pet tiger in on the pact?
12) Chicago Bears: When Rams defensive end Chris Long pulled his younger brother, Kyle, out of a skirmish during Sunday's game in St. Louis, how awesome would it have been if their mother, Diane, had raced onto the field and knocked their heads together?