The NFC had a few teams that were looked at as Super Bowl contenders. The Green Bay Packers were on team that was talked about. After a 2-0 start to the season, they are living up to the feelings a lot of fans had about them despite losing wide receiver Jordy Nelson in the preseason. Another team that received a lot of attention before the season is the Seattle Seahawks. The team started off the season losing two straight, but they dominated the Chicago Bears on Sunday 26-0 to let folks know that they are still a team that needs to be feared. These two teams have pretty much been the two that many believe will represent the NFC. But there is one team that many fans continue to sleep on. And believe it or not, they are for real. And contrary to belief, this team has as good a shot as any to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl.
The Arizona Cardinals have gotten better and better each year under head coach Bruce Arians. The veteran offensive coordinator took over a talented team that needed some direction. And once he stepped in, he provided the direction they needed. He has had them at double-figures in wins each year he has been there, making a playoff appearance the last two seasons. But this year, this team may be the best it has ever been under him. Last season, the Cardinals had the best record in the NFL while Carson Palmer was at quarterback. Things seemed to be lining up for them perfectly when Palmer went down with a knee injury against the St. Louis Rams. The way he landed led many to believe that it was an ACL injury and it was confirmed when tests were done on his knee. Drew Stanton took over at quarterback, but this team was not the same going forward. They were missing their leader and their best quarterback. This year for them, hopefully he stays healthy. With him healthy, they will definitely build on their success last year. And with him, the young receivers that they have (Michael Floyd and John Brown) are better.
The team hopes that Palmer stays healthy because he is key to their Super Bowl run, but he is not the only offensive ingredient that is needed to make this run happen. The Cardinals, for all their success last season, were a terrible running team. The group of backs they had last year were just not getting the job done. And going into the offseason, there were still questions in regards to what they would do to improve the running game. Well, they went out and got offensive guard Mike Iupati and running back Chris Johnson this offseason to try to boost their running game. Iupati has not played and Johnson had a big game today but has not taken over as the everydown guy, but even with that they are still a better running team. It seems like the mindset of the team has changed offensively. The team last season just did not seem to be very physical when running the ball last year. This year, the team definitely has a physical presence in the trenches. And it seems like their running backs got the memo as well. The Cardinals are ranked 12th rushing the football so far this season, averaging 117.5 rushing yards per game and 4.4 per attempt rushing. Last season, they only averaged 81.8 rushing yards per game and averaged 3.3 yards per game. The addition of a consistent running game makes the Cardinals even more dangerous when on offense because now they can have some true play-action offense that opposing defenses will respect. And with Larry Fitzgerald having a great season so far, that offense has become scary good with a running game (averaging 39.5 points per game so far this season).
The offense in Arizona is scary, but the defense is as well. Last season, the defense was manned by defensive coordinator Todd Bowles last season. And with his constant pressure and blitzing style, the Cardinals were a feared defensive group. They boasted a defense that was ranked in the Top 5 in the NFL. Bowles and his defense were so good last year that it landed him a head coaching gig with the New York Jets. With Bowles leaving, some questioned whether they would be able to sustain what he created or fall back in the crowd. The Cardinals promoted outside linebackers coach James Bettner to defensive coordinator and by all indications so far, the Cardinals have not dropped off at all. So far, they are ranked in the Top 5 again this season. But what is different this year is the level of playmakers they have in the secondary. Safety Tyrann Mathieu, for example, has been excellent so far this season and continues to get better. The thought is out there that he is becoming one of the best playmakers the Cardinals have, rivaling cornerback Patrick Peterson. And with the pass rush they have, led by defensive lineman Calais Campbell, it allows the playmakers on the back end to make plays. As the season goes on, the team will be even more exciting and we will get to know all the playmakers they have in their secondary to accompany their front seven.
The Cardinals once again have everyone where they want them. No one is talking about them at all and yet they are atop the NFL standings at this point with three wins and zero losses. But as time goes by, they will receive the attention they deserve. And what many will realize is this team is better suited than their 2014 team to make a run at a Super Bowl.