"Playoffs? You want to talk about playoffs? You kiddin' me? Playoffs? I just hope we can win a game." - Jim Mora, coach of the Indianapolis Colts, November 25, 2001 after a loss to the San Francisco 49ers.
After the Arizona Cardinals blew a 21-point lead and lost to the Baltimore Ravens on October 30th to fall to a woeful 1-6, I bet a lot of you started feeling a lot like Jim Mora did ten years ago -- just hoping the Birds would win another game.
On Halloween, there was talk of the Cardinals' hat being thrown into the "Suck for Luck" sweepstakes. Two weeks before Christmas, that talk has shifted to hope for a playoff run.
Ken Whisenhunt's team has won three straight and five of their last six to improve their record to 6-7 with three games to play. Maybe it's the holiday egg nog talking, but all three of the remaining games on their schedule -- home vs. Cleveland, at Cincinnati and home against Seattle--are infinitely winnable. Is 9-7 out of the question?
Is it unlikely?
Maybe. But at least there's a chance.
The Cardinals defense has, at the very least, reached a comfort level with new coordinator Ray Horton's defense. More accurately, they're playing winning football. Sunday's victim, the NFC West champion San Francisco 49ers, ran headfirst into a big red brick wall after halftime during the Cardinals' 21-19 win. In the 2nd half, the 49ers had 78 yards of offense, and 37 of it came on a touchdown run by Frank Gore. That was the only play the Niners ran in Arizona territory in the 2nd half.
Other than that, San Francisco had 41 yards and two first downs in the game's final 30 minutes.
The Cardinals' defense stiffened in the red zone, holding the 49ers to three field goal attempts in their three trips inside the 20-yard line.
Offensively, Arizona is doing just enough to win -- they haven't scored more than 23 points in any of their last five wins -- and quarterback John Skelton has been the poster boy for that. Pressed into duty early in the game for an injured Kevin Kolb, Skelton had his typical up-and-down performance. There were the highs of his touchdown passes to Early Doucet, Larry Fitzgerald and Andre Roberts and there were the lows of his three turnovers.
But somehow, with a defense that prevents teams from getting into the endzone, Skelton overcomes his wrongdoings and wills this team to wins. He's kind of like a mini-Tebow, without all the kneeling and hype.
After the Cardinals fell behind 19-7 early in the third, Skelton went on to complete 14 of his 17 passes for 195 yards and two touchdowns in helping construct the comeback. That's a QB rating of 129.17. He makes plays with his feet, he shakes off tacklers, and he does a lot of the little things that help a team win.
But, much like Tebow, I bet you cringed at least once while watching Skelton play on Sunday. I know I did.
"You guys stuck a fork in us quite a while ago, you know," Whisenhunt said following the win over the 49ers. "Our guys never let it get to them."
And for that, Whisenhunt and the rest of the Cardinals deserve credit. Plenty of times in their history, we've seen Cardinals teams get off to a bad start and coast the rest of the season. That's not happening this year.
Will these Cardinals join the 1970 Cincinnati Bengals as the only teams in NFL history to qualify for the playoffs after stumbling to a 1-6 record? That remains to be seen.
But they're in position to at least avoid a losing season for only the 6th time in the 24 years since they moved to the Valley.
And even if that improbable quest for a playoff spot falls short, they're planting the seeds for 2012 and beyond.