GLENDALE, Ariz. -- At some point in every good team's season, they win a game that sort of sends a message to everyone that they are, in fact, a contender.
At that point, the team's success goes from fluke to reality, and the team is looked at in a different light.
In Sunday's 40-11 win over the Indianapolis Colts, the Arizona Cardinals became a playoff contender. That is, if they hadn't already been one.
"You know what's funny, man," defensive lineman Darnell Dockett asked after the game. "Every time the Cardinals win, it's always about what the other team didn't do. It's never what we forced other teams to do; so we understand that."
That probably won't be the case anymore.
Nothing about Sunday's game was close. The Cardinals dominated a first place team in every way that mattered, taking a 27-3 lead into the halftime break and extending it to 34-3 before the Colts finally reached the end zone. The game was out of hand pretty much from the beginning, which allowed some fans to apparently leave as the third quarter came to an end.
And they did not miss anything. No comeback from Andrew Luck. No collapse from the Cardinals. No "The Colts are who we thought they were" moment, and no one left shaking their heads about another defeat snatched from the jaws of victory.
This was about as complete a performance as you will see in the NFL, and it says plenty about how far the Cardinals have come. Arizona gained 410 yards of offense, with 120 of them coming on the ground. Michael Floyd topped the 100-yard mark for the second week in a row, and Arizona once again did not commit a turnover.
For all intents and purposes, the Colts could not stop the Cardinals.
"I think we're finally where we need to be to be a team that you're not going to fear us, but you're going to respect us," Cardinals coach Bruce Arians said.
Leave the fearing for the team's defense.
The Cardinals held the Colts to just 239 total yards of offense, bottling up the running game while harassing Indy QB Andrew Luck all afternoon. He posted his worst effort of the season, and looked generally miserable the entire time.
But, we all knew defense was not a problem in Arizona. This team and its playoff chances all rested with the offense turning things around, and that appears to be the case.
"The first thing I think about is we're a defensive team, but nothing says we can't develop into an offensive team," Cards QB Carson Palmer said.
With where the team stands and what it has done lately, is there any reason to doubt the possibility?
"We're feeling good out there," left tackle Bradley Sowell said. "Every drive today, we felt like we could score. We had a great game all the way around and I'm just proud of everybody on the team."
At 7-4, the Cardinals are in the playoff race just one year after winning five games.
"We understand that this is a great opportunity for us -- one that doesn't come around too often," receiver Larry Fitzgerald said. "Guys are willing to do whatever it takes to make sure that they're not the guy to make us not get where we want to be."
Where is that, exactly? With the way they're playing right now, it's hard not to view the Cardinals as a team that is not yet done winning football games.
"This team reminds me a lot about the team we went to the Super Bowl with in 2008," defensive end Calais Campbell said. "I think we're a lot more talented, though. I think this team is a lot more complete."
Whether or not the Cardinals are that good is up for debate, though we'll find out more over the season's final five games. A playoff spot is within reach, and as we saw in '08, anything can happen once you get there.
And Sunday's game was a big step in the right direction.
"We were sitting there 6-4, we won a few games in a row, and we don't feel like we've made a statement game yet," Sowell added. "Today, our goal was to make a game that was like 'Hey, we're not pretenders. We're contenders.'"
Yes, you are.