Arizona Cardinals flying high this season
By PAT RALPH
College Contributor Network
Entering the 2014 NFL season, it looked as if the NFC West was going to be a season-long battle between the defending Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks and the San Francisco 49ers. However, through nine weeks of the season, both teams are looking up in the division at the Arizona Cardinals.
With the best record in the NFL at 7-1 and positioning themselves for home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, the Cardinals have been the league's most pleasant surprise this season. While the Cardinals were not expected by many to contend for both the division and conference titles this season, Arizona did go 10-6 last year and missed out on the playoffs by a game.
One of the primary reasons for the Cardinals' success has been their top-level run defense, which ranks second in the NFL in rushing yards allowed. In addition, Arizona ranks third in the league in both yards per rush attempt and rushing yards per game.
In order to win in the NFL, your team needs to be able to run the football. If the Cardinals can continue to take away opposing offenses' ability to run the ball for the remainder of the season and the playoffs, Arizona will be a serious threat in the month of January.
On the other hand, what could be the Achilles' heel for the Cardinals going down the stretch is their pass defense. While Arizona's pass defense is not the worst, it certainly is not one of the best. If the Cardinals run into a team with a strong quarterback and receiving corps in the playoffs, it could spell doom.
Look no further for an example than Arizona's lone loss this season on the road against the Denver Broncos, when Peyton Manning threw four touchdowns and almost 500 yards on the day. The Cardinals will need to get more pressure on opposing quarterbacks for the rest of the season if they really want to make noise.
What may be even more incredible about the Cardinals' tremendous start is that their offense is average at best. While their passing and running games are very middle of the road, the Cardinals are arguably the most efficient team in the league.
The Cardinals have only thrown one interception this season, are amongst the best in the league at not fumbling the ball and excel in protecting the quarterback. Unless it is an amazing catch or touchdown from wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald, Arizona's offense will not blow anyone away. However, what the Cardinals do excel at are the little things that can ultimately make the difference between a team winning or losing a championship.
A big reason for that has been the rebirth of quarterback Carson Palmer, who is in his second season with the Cardinals. After the Cincinnati Bengals traded Palmer (which ushered in the Andy Dalton era in Ohio) to the Oakland Raiders, Palmer's career began to take a turn for the worst in the Bay Area.
After two dreadful seasons in Oakland, Palmer joined Fitzgerald & Co. in the desert and has brought nothing but happiness to Cardinals fans thus far. Palmer does not have numbers that will make your jaw drop in utter amazement, but what the veteran does do is compete at a high level and give Arizona an opportunity to win on a weekly basis because he never turns the ball over and infrequently gets sacked.
Another huge factor in the Cardinals' success is head coach Bruce Arians, who is also in his second season with Arizona. Arians' player-friendly personality has resonated well with the team, as Coach of the Year honors could be on the way if Arizona continues to play well. His "players' coach" mentality was seen by many NFL fans back in 2012 when he filled in as head coach of the Indianapolis Colts while Chuck Pagano battled cancer.
Going forward this season, the Cardinals' schedule will make them earn that division title and best record in the NFC. Arizona has yet to play the Seahawks, so the defending Super Bowl champions will have their say before handing away the division or conference crown to the Cardinals. Arizona must also still travel to San Francisco and play host to both the Detroit Lions and Kansas City Chiefs, who are obviously three very good teams.
Finally, the Cardinals have something more to play for than just the NFC West title or the top seed in the NFC. The Cardinals have the opportunity to not only play in the Super Bowl, but to play in their actual home stadium for the Vince Lombardi Trophy, as Super Bowl XLIX will be played at University of Phoenix Stadium. Seeing the Cardinals play for a championship at home would be pretty special.
We know a lot more about the Arizona Cardinals now than we did at the start of the season. Needless to say, the Cardinals still have much more to prove if they are to be the best team in the NFL. But for now, the Arizona Cardinals are soaring high through the 2014 season and do not seem to be landing anytime soon.
Pat Ralph is a junior at Villanova University. He has a passion for Philadelphia sports, especially the Phillies and Eagles, as well as Villanova Basketball and the New York Knicks. Follow him on Twitter @Pat_Ralph