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Updated Dec 4, 2011 - 8:42 pm

Cardinals on the rise? Team gives reason to believe

Arizona Cardinals' Clark Haggans (53), Lyle Sendlein (63), Anthony Sherman (35) and Andre Roberts (12) celebrates a game-winning touchdown by teammate LaRod Stephens-Howling against the Dallas Cowboys during overtime of an NFL football game, Sunday, Dec. 4, 2011, in Glendale, Ariz. The Cardinals won 19-13 in overtime. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

At 5-7, the Arizona Cardinals find themselves just two games out of an NFC Wild Card spot.

Let that sink in for a moment, you know, the fact that the playoffs are not out of the realm of possibility for a team that started the season losing six of its first seven games.

And with three of their final four games at home...OK, they're probably not going to make a late postseason run, but to even be in the conversation is something that didn't seem possible not long ago.

Funny what kind of difference a few weeks can make.

As the dust began to settle after LaRod Stephens-Howling's game-winning 52-yard reception in overtime, one undeniable fact remained:

For a team that had seemingly found every different way to lose a close game, the fact that punt returns, blocked field goals, clutch fourth down conversions and excellent defense have led to success means there's increasingly more reason to believe in Big Red.

Remember, this season does not have to be a waste.

"When we were 1-6 we were fighting just as hard as we're fighting right now, and just as hard as we were fighting the first week," quarterback Kevin Kolb said. "I've said that multiple times, and you don't see that everywhere.

"That's a big reflection of our leadership and our coaching staff and the players we have in the locker room. We just need to keep plugging and keep getting better."

Improvement is really all there is for the team now, and while many were ready to throw dirt on the Cardinal and their head coach (this writer included), the fact remains that the Cardinals, somehow, seem to be coming around.

To wit: Arizona has now equaled its win total from one season ago, and there are still four games left. Sure, five wins is nothing to write home about, but just more than one month ago it appeared that only a miracle would prevent the Cardinals from landing another top-5 pick in the draft.

Now, it seems as if the only thing the team needed was time, especially the defense.

"Without minicamp or OTAs, you're not so comfortable with your teammates and the defensive scheme," linebacker Daryl Washington said, "but now you can see it. "We're all on the same page, everyone's making plays."

"We compliment each other."

The offense is still learning each other, especially after Kolb missed four games due to injury. But of course, his return went pretty well, and maybe now the offense can begin to form an identity, too.

Kolb talked about it, saying he wanted the offense to "get to know ourselves" in the second half Sunday, and Whisenhunt said his quarterback's performance was exciting because it gives the team "something to build on and build with him."

There's optimism now, a belief that he Cardinals may no longer be the team that lost 15 of 18 games dating back to last season. While they may not make the playoffs, simply moving on from that stretch of barely watchable football would be enough to classify this season as a success.

Of course, there are still four games left, and with each one a chance for the Cardinals to take another step forward.

"I think we're really playing well down the stretch of the games we were able to win," receiver Larry Fitzgerald said. "Guys are consistently making plays down the stretch."

That wasn't the case earlier in the season, where fumbles, drops, interceptions and otherwise bad play cost the Cardinals game after game. Things are different these days, and it would be wise to not underestimate the impact each win can have on this team, especially with so many young players who really haven't experienced success as an Arizona Cardinal.

"It was really a great feeling because all year we've been through so much adversity," second-year pro O'Brien Schofield said. "It shows our ability to stick together as a team and everyone has faith that we're going to prevail and win the game."

One week at a time, the Cardinals are doing just that, and with each victory comes a belief that the Cardinals are rising once again.


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