Cardinals have many things to fix in order to avoid early exit

Former NBA coaching great Pat Riley wasn't big on honoring team achievements that didn't end with a league championship. The steps to getting there were nice, especially when they were new to the franchise, but respect didn't accompany the process, just the end result.

While the NFC West title the Arizona Cardinals clinched three weeks ago is special to a franchise known more for its futility, they need to understand Riley's credo: In totality, they haven't done enough to earn respect.

In fact, the way Arizona has played for the last month there isn't any team that fears the Cardinals come playoff time.

It's a message Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt has been trying to preach to his 8-7 team, which has lost four of its last five games -- by a margin of 167-70. The problem is the team hasn't responded. Not to Whisenhunt, members of his staff, and even quarterback Kurt Warner, who's played in two Super Bowls and earned MVP honors.

"Even though Kurt's been there, he hasn't been there in a while, so unfortunately, what he says could be falling on deaf ears," Whisenhunt said.

Despite spending the past five weeks losing to the Giants, Eagles, and Vikings before getting utterly humiliated 47-7 last Sunday in snowy New England, there seems to still be a posture that things will be okay once the playoffs start.

The Cardinals are acting like a teenager who thinks that by getting a driver's license, he's qualified to compete with the NASCAR pros at Daytona.

"Since we won the division, we've lost focus," a candid Whisenhunt said. "We have young players who haven't been here before and a lot of veterans who haven't been here before. A lot of them don't know what it takes because they don't have that experience. They need to understand that there has to be a sense of urgency."

Whisenhunt said he'll try to convey the message by coaching with a sense of urgency. Playing time and position battles are back up for grabs, like it's training camp. This isn't an uncommon tack by coaches to see which players respond to such a transparent ploy.

If not enough is done, then it's easy to see what's coming -- an early exit from the playoffs.

While Whisenhunt said the collapse began after the team clinched a playoff berth, the demise started after Arizona lost at home to the Giants, 37-29, in Week 12.

Players bemoaned having to play at Philadelphia on Thanksgiving night, a game they lost 48-20. After beating St. Louis, 34-10, the following week, they have been outscored 82-21 in losses to Minnesota and New England.

Of the eight teams they've played that are still in the playoff picture, Arizona has beaten two: Dallas and Miami. Five of their victories have come within the NFC West, whose teams have a combined record of 12-33.

In falling behind 31-0 to the Patriots on Sunday, Arizona became just the third team in NFL history to trail by at least 28 points at halftime at three times in a season. No, the winless Detroit Lions are not in that group.

"I knew it was a high number and I knew it wasn't good," Whisenhunt said.

Arizona is 0-5 in games in the Eastern Time Zone this season, a worrisome record should they get out of the first round of the playoffs and have to travel. The Cardinals also have the NFL's worst rushing offense (71.1 yards per game) and a defense that has unraveled the past month.

"When we play well, we can play with anybody in the league and when we've done that we have," Whisenhunt said. "With that success, though, you stop paying attention to detail. We have played some good teams lately and that has something to do with what's happened. It's easy to let those things slide. More than anything, we've lost focus and the attention to detail."

Whisenhunt says practices this week will hinge on that attention to detail. Defensively and along the lines of scrimmage, players have been inconsistent with techniques, he said. That could make the difference between leveraging a block that gives Warner more time or plugging a gap to free a linebacker for a tackle.

The Cardinals also have lost some of their edge on defense.

"Early in the season we gave up some yards but when teams got in the red zone, we were able to hold them to field goals," Whisenhunt said. "Lately we've been allowing touchdowns. That has to stop."

More than anything, Whisenhunt said, Arizona has to stop thinking about the playoffs.

"We have to play well in this last game against Seattle," Whisenhunt said. "Players have to say enough is enough. We can fix what's gone wrong and we can get things turned around and give ourselves confidence. We want guys to feel good about themselves again and understand what this is all about."

With Arizona almost exclusively pass-only on offense, it seemingly would defy history should it move deep into postseason. Teams that run and stop the run are the teams that usually hoist the Lombardi Trophy. Whisenhunt knows that all too well.

He and assistant head coach/offensive line coach Russ Grimm came to Arizona from Pittsburgh, where they helped lead the Steelers to their Super Bowl XL title. Grimm also was a guard for the Washington Redskins famous "Hogs," a rough group that plowed holes for a slew of running backs.

Playoff picture

While the Cardinals have clinched a spot, many teams are still fighting for their playoff lives. See where each contending team stands **if the season ended today ...**

For most of the season, there were questions about whether Arizona was built for the postseason. Those questions are being asked more loudly now that the playoffs are near and the Cardinals have attempted just 69 rushing attempts (13.8 average) the past five games.

Thing is, the Cardinals can't alter what they do and who they are as an offense. They have to roll with Warner flinging it to Pro Bowl wide receivers Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin -- who will return from a shoulder injury to face Seattle -- and hope for the best.

"When you throw the ball a lot your margin for errors is much greater," said Whisenhunt, who has watched Warner throw six interceptions and six touchdowns over the past five games.

"With certain weather situations, it's tough to throw the ball. We're playing next week at home and opening the playoffs at home so we're not going to worry about that now."

There are more pressing issues.

"This is a team that gets easily distracted so we're lucky that our last game and our first playoff game are at home," Whisenhunt said. "We have to minimize distractions. More importantly, we must stay focused and learn how to handle distractions."

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