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Playing the role of underdog, Cardinals set for season’s second half

Arizona Cardinals defensive end Calais Campbell (93) celebrates with outside linebacker Markus Golden (44) after intercepting a pass against the San Francisco 49ers during the first half of an NFL football game in Santa Clara, Calif., Thursday, Oct. 6, 2016. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

TEMPE, Ariz. — Prior to this season, the last time the Arizona Cardinals had a below .500 record was Week 8 of the 2013 season, at which point they were 3-4.

Arizona won its next four games and since then, the Cardinals have been a winning team. Always.

Both the 2014 and 2015 seasons began with three straight victories, and each of those teams went on to post one of the league’s better records.

A Super Bowl favorite going into the season, a 3-4-1 record halfway through has them being viewed as anything but. In fact, few see them even reaching the playoffs, let alone making a deep postseason run.

“I know people don’t believe it and probably don’t want to hear it, but I like where we are,” quarterback Carson Palmer said. “We’re the underdog. We’re going to come out fighting and I’m excited to watch us on Sunday nights and watch what happens these next eight weeks. I like where we are.”

Where the Cardinals are is not where anyone predicted they would be, yet it’s not exactly the worst position possible. While currently on the outside of the playoff picture, there is a very clear path for them to climb their way in.

If, of course, they can more closely resemble the team that they were supposed to be rather than the one they have been. With five of their final eight games coming on the road, the proposition seems daunting. Some would say the playoffs are already out of reach.

“At the end of the day we don’t care,” cornerback Patrick Peterson said. “We’ve been underdogs before, our backs have been against the wall before. People have counted us out before. If we are underdogs, it’s familiar territory.”

Familiar territory, sure, but not necessarily one they wanted to be in.

“It feels a lot better being 9-1,” receiver Larry Fitzgerald said. “I’m just telling you, it feels a lot better. But it doesn’t matter; we’re fine, mentally. We know what we have to do and we’re going to fight.”

The Cardinals are in a position where they need to win a lot of games late because they lost too many early. It’s quite different from where they were each of the last two seasons, when in 2014 they were 7-1 through eight games and then last year they were 6-2.

“Totally different,” Palmer said of this season. “You go into every game and you’ve got a bullseye on your back. It couldn’t be [more] different. It’s the exact opposite this year, and I think we’re a good underdog team mentally.”

The last two seasons, when the Cardinals got off to fast starts, each led to the playoffs. The 2013 season in which they were 3-4 saw them finish with 10 wins, though the playoffs were out of reach.

The number of wins the Cardinals will need to finish with this season to have a similar fate is unknown. Some think nine is the magic number, though it could be 10. Eight also might get the job done, depending on what transpires in the rest of the NFC.

The silver lining in their mediocre start and subsequent transformation from favorite to afterthought is that the conference, as a whole, seems to be pretty down. That, in turn, leaves a door open, if even just slightly.

“I think there’s a lot of parity this year,” defensive lineman Corey Peters said. “Just looking at the standings, I mean, we’re definitely not out of it. But we’ve definitely got to get our stuff together and get going, just trying to start taking it week-by-week and hopefully stack some wins.”

If the urgency to do so was not there before, it would have to be now. They earned the decreased expectations, and as linebacker Kevin Minter said, “the proof is in the pudding” with regards to why people are not too high on them anymore.

“We haven’t really played up to our potential, and if you were to look at our record, I would think I was the underdog, too,” he said. “I don’t know — it’s cool playing like that, your back is against the wall, playing a little desperate. I feel like it brings the best out of guys, and I expect big things out of this team going forward the second half of this season.”

Minter suggested that their record might lead to some teams perhaps sleeping on the Cardinals, which would allow them to sneak up on opponents. Given that many of the remaining teams on Arizona’s schedule will be fighting for playoff spots as well, that’s probably not likely.

That said, the Cardinals are a team that believes they are too talented for the record they have produced, and therefore could go out and put a stretch of games together that gets them where they want to go.

“The biggest thing is the game’s never over until it’s over, and the same thing for a season,” defensive lineman Calais Campbell said. “The season’s not over until it’s over. You just keep playing ball, take it one game at a time. It’s just like being down in a game — first quarter, second quarter, you might be down, halftime you’ve got to come out swinging and just make a good comeback and just take it one play at a time.

“It’s the same kind of mentality, take it one day at a time.”

Stories for pre-game reading

For John Brown, the sickle cell trait he’s dealt with ‘is out of my head now’

Paige Dimakos went Four Downs with Frostee Rucker

Communication has allowed the Cardinals’ defense to flourish

New left tackle John Wetzel has earned trust with his teammates and coaches

The Cardinals still see 49ers QB Colin Kaepernick as a threat

Running back David Johnson has no problem with getting the ball as often as he has

The Cardinals focused on special teams and fundamentals during their bye week

A food drive will be hosted at University of Phoenix Stadium prior to Sunday’s game

ESPN’s Mike Sando does not see a return to 2015 form for the Cardinals

A weak NFC has kept the Cardinals’ playoff hopes alive

Miscellany

– The Cardinals have compiled a 10-2 record in the month of November under Bruce Arians.

– Arizona has beaten San Francisco in three straight games. A win Sunday would give them their fifth-ever season sweep against the 49ers.

– The Cardinals have not allowed a passing touchdown in 15 consecutive quarters.

– Larry Fitzgerald needs just one catch to have a reception in 188 consecutive games, which is the fourth-longest streak in NFL history. If Fitz notches at least 65 receiving yards Sunday, he would become one of just four players in NFL history with at least 2,000 career receiving yards against a single opponent.

– With 85 receiving yards, Fitzgerald would pass James Lofton for 11th place on the NFL’s all-time list. With five receptions, he would pass Terrell Owens for sixth on the NFL’s all-time list.

– David Johnson enters the game having tallied at least 100 yards from scrimmage in eight consecutive games, which is already a franchise record.

– With a 300-yard passing effort, Carson Palmer would have 20 such games as a member of the Cardinals, leaving him just two behind Kurt Warner for tops on the franchise’s all-time list.

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