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How far back are the Cardinals from the NFL’s final four?

The final four is set.

The New York Jets will battle the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Green Bay Packers take on the Chicago Bears, the winners reaching Super Bowl XLV.

Of course, it was not long ago when the Cardinals were getting ready to host the Philadelphia Eagles, a thrilling game that the home team won 32-25, securing the beleaguered franchise’s first trip to the Super Bowl. We won’t get into what happened in Tampa, but suffice to say that was probably the most exciting month for the entire franchise and its fans.

Fast forward to now, and the Cardinals aren’t anywhere close to contention. In fact, you may wonder how either the Bears, a team the Cardinals smoked in Chicago last year and the Packers, a team the Cardinals beat in the playoffs last season will represent the NFC in the Big Game, or how the Jets, who won just four games in 2007 and are starting a second-year quarterback could actually top the very same Steelers who beat the Cardinals in Super Bowl XLIII.

Sadly, of the four teams that are left, the Cardinals beat two of them just last season, one won just four games in 2007 and the other, of course, is the Steelers. Knowing that, it is fair to ask how those teams got so good so fast while Arizona instead sunk to the bottom of the worst division in football.

One common denominator is the quarterback position. The Packers and Steelers boast two of the best in the game, as Aaron Rodgers and Ben Roethlisberger are both capable of winning games by themselves. The Cardinals, unfortunately, do not have a QB with anywhere near the same amount of ability as these two.

Look at the other two quarterbacks, Jay Cutler and Mark Sanchez, and you start to get the impression that maybe a top-flight QB is not necessary to compete for a Super Bowl. Both have ability, sure, but neither is what one would call “elite.”

Could John Skelton, a free agent or a future draft pick reach the solid-but-not-great level?

It’s possible.

So if it’s not the quarterback, what is it? It can’t be the running game, as only the Jets ranked in the top 10 for total rushing yards this past season. James Starks, Shonn Greene, Matt Forte, LaDainian Tomlinson and Rashard Mendenhall did not come close to challenging for the league’s rushing crown, and none have averaged more than 100 yards per game in the postseason.

Neither the Bears nor Steelers are known for keeping their quarterbacks upright, and only the Jets did a decent job of opening holes for running backs. Therefore, you can’t really look at the offensive line play as a key cog in their respective successes. In fact, the Packers are the only one of the four that can claim to even have a great offense, as they were the only one of the four to rank in the top 10 for points scored in 2010.

No, where these teams make their money and rack up victories is on defense, which is the area the Cardinals arguably need the most work. Besides talent, what makes their defense strong is identity.

The Bears conjure up memories of the “Monsters on the Midway,” the Steelers and the “Steel Curtain,” the Jets are led by defensive mastermind Rex Ryan and the Packers have elite defenders like Charles Woodson, Clay Matthews, and A.J. Hawk.

For further proof defense matters, Pittsburgh and Green Bay led their respective conferences in sacks, while the Bears and Packers were second and fourth, respectively, in the NFC for takeaways. The Steelers and Jets were second and third in the AFC.

The good news for the Cardinals is, as bad as their defense was, they were tied for sixth in the NFC with 30 takeaways. However, they are lacking an identity, which is something that could very well be rectified with their upcoming defensive coordinator hire.

That hire, for a team like the Cardinals, could make a world of difference. Whether they get an aggressive mind like a Rex Ryan (we know it is really his defense), Dom Capers, Dick LeBeau or Rod Marinelli, the right hire could take a talented unit like the one the Cardinals boast and mold it into one to be feared.

It seems like a while ago when the Cardinals were preparing for the NFC Championship game at University of Phoenix Stadium with a Super Bowl berth on the line. While the 2008 and 2010 Cardinals were worlds apart in terms of success, one look at this year’s final four would reveal that, for all their faults, the Cardinals could be just a couple moves and some luck away from making a return trip to the top of the NFL.

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