TEMPE, Ariz. — They say familiarity breeds contempt.
It may also breed success.
The Arizona Cardinals’ schedule saw them take on the AFC South this season, and through three games, the team is a perfect 3-0 against foes from that division.
Wins over the Houston Texans, Jacksonville Jaguars and Indianapolis Colts have helped keep the team in the playoff race, and a victory over the fourth and final team, the Tennessee Titans, is essentially a must if the team is to keep hope alive.
So it’s a good thing, then, that the Cardinals have an idea of what they’re going up against.
“It does help, there’s no doubt about it,” head coach Bruce Arians said of being familiar with the conference. “When you play those teams as long as we’ve played them — it seems like I’ve played Tennessee once or twice a year for the last 10 years — but it helps knowing their guys.”
However, knowing an opponent only helps a team so much. Arians acknowledged that it all comes down to how well his players play.
But Arians and much of his staff spent last season in the division, so there was, and is, an advantage to be had.
“In this league you’ll take anything you can get, any little help you can get,” guard Daryn Colledge said. “Having a staff like this that knows these opponents helps us out a lot.”
On average, the Cardinals have beaten their AFC South opponents by a score of 31-16, though the numbers are a bit skewed due to a 40-11 romp over the Colts a few weeks ago.
But the idea that the staff’s knowledge has played a role in the team’s success is not necessarily unfounded.
“I think so,” quarterback Carson Palmer said when asked if it helps. “Having two opportunities to play against them last year is huge.
“But at the same time, they had two opportunities to play against — obviously different players, but the same scheme. It definitely helps you in the personnel department and mismatch department, what you’re trying to accomplish on offense, so yeah, I think it’s definitely helped us.”
For many Cardinals, the AFC South is unfamiliar territory. The last time Arizona played the division was 2009, with the team beating Houston and Jacksonville while losing to Indianapolis and Tennessee. Just six players on the current roster were on the team that year, and for perspective, the starting QBs in that game were Matt Leinart for the Cardinals and Vince Young for the Titans.
Plenty has changed since then, but little has changed since Arians and his staff were roaming the division’s sidelines just last season.
“Usually when you play someone like the AFC South and you’re from the NFC West it’s an unusual opponent for you, and for us it’s almost like a normal week when it comes to these guys,” Colledge said. “They’ve been game planning these guys for a long time and they know their tendencies and know what to expect, and that helps us with the process.”
Granted, the coaches’ knowledge can only take a team so far. As Arians alluded to, at some point it comes down to players simply doing their jobs and making plays. While the coaches’ knowledge of the opponents may help in the game plan, it’s up to the men on the field to execute it.
Which is why cornerback Jerraud Powers, who spent his first four NFL seasons in the AFC South as a member of the Colts, doesn’t see much of advantage at all.
“I just think our mentality is to take it one game at a time and try to execute the game plan the best that we can,” he said, noting Arians himself was only in the division one year. “I wouldn’t just say we were familiar with the AFC South and that’s why we’ve had success. It’s just kind of how the chips fall, if they may.”
Including this season, the Cardinals hold a 16-15 record against the four AFC South teams. Of all the divisions in the NFL, it’s the one the team has faced off against the least.
But what the Cardinals franchise lacks in experience the coaching staff makes up for in knowledge, and up to this point, that has been most beneficial.