TEMPE, Ariz. — The best team in the NFC, record-wise, is the Arizona Cardinals.
Let that sink in for a moment.
This is a Cardinals team that, just two years ago, lost 11 of its last 12 games while finishing with a 5-11 record. This is a Cardinals team that, just last season, was at one point 3-5 with losses to each of its division rivals.
It’s the same Cardinals team that has trailed in the fourth quarter of half its wins this season, only to make enough plays to come out on top, like in Sunday’s crazy 24-20 victory over the Philadelphia Eagles at University of Phoenix Stadium.
All it took was a 75-yard touchdown pass from Carson Palmer with less than two minutes remaining and then an incredibly stressful defensive stand.
“Survivors. We find a way to win. It’s not always pretty,” Cardinals coach Bruce Arians said Monday when asked his team’s identity, before lamenting some of his team’s shortcomings in the effort.
Is there such a thing as an ugly win? In the NFL, the simple answer is “no.”
All too often in the past, the Cardinals made a habit of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory; all too often the franchise would invent new ways to lose games. Now they find ways to win.
“You start winning games in the fourth quarter; you believe you’re going to win,” Arians said of how a team learns to be resilient. “You start losing games in the fourth quarter and doubt creeps in. We’ve been fortunate enough to set that tempo with the first one and build on it all year.”
It was once thought the hire of Ken Whisenhunt and his staff turned things around, and it would be foolish not to credit the only coach to ever lead the franchise to the Super Bowl with moving things along. But it is obvious that Arians, the man hired to replace Whisenhunt, has changed this organization’s mindset.
“It shifted last year,” safety Rashad Johnson said. “Guys, it was just a shift to where we began to believe, believe that we could win. And as that streak continued to go on, that momentum that we ended last season with last year rolled into this year.
“We came into this season expecting to be right where we are right now, in the lead of our division and in control of our destiny. Like I said, it started last year and we all believe. Each and every game we go into, no matter who we play, we’re matched up well enough to get a win.”
Dating back to Week 8 of last season, the Cardinals have won 13 of 16 games. Their record over that span is tied with the Denver Broncos for the best in the NFL, and it includes wins over five teams who either made the postseason last year or have a good chance to reach it this season.
This season, their great start comes after the defense appeared to be ravaged by injuries, defections and suspensions, and the offense was without its starting quarterback for three games.
A look at the statistics would show a team that is 15th in the NFL in passing yards but 28th in rushing yards, along with third in rushing yards allowed but 32nd in passing yards surrendered. The 23.4 points they are scoring per game places them 15th in the league.
The Cardinals are plus-9 in the turnover department, however, and are converting 43.3 percent of their third downs, good enough for ninth-best in the NFL.
They do some things really well, a handful of things alright and a few things really poorly. It’s all added up to a first-place team in what may be the toughest division in the NFL, and though there is still a lot of football to be played, it’s clear the team’s confidence in itself and the Valley’s confidence in the team is on the rise.
And why shouldn’t it be? A 6-1 start has never happened in Arizona, and since 1970, nearly 84 percent of the teams that started off with that record have made the playoffs. The combined record of the team’s remaining opponents is 34-32, but the slate includes a pair of matchups with the defending Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks as well as contests with playoff contenders Dallas, San Francisco and Kansas City.
“I would hope that we’d get one of those pretty games, but against the teams we’re playing it’s going to be survival,” Arians said. “Everybody that we play from here on in is in the thick of it.
“The Rams are one of the better teams we’re going to play. They might have the worst record, but they’re one of the best teams we’re going to play. Every game is going to be to the wire probably, but it’d be nice to have one that we played as good as we could play.”
Against that group, no win would go unappreciated, no matter how it happens. Win pretty, win ugly, just win.
“If you survive, you win, so I guess that’s a compliment,” Johnson said when asked what he thought about his coach’s description of the team’s identity. “I guess, after (Sunday’s) game I was just like ‘we’re fighters.’
“At the end of the day you’re survivors, you’re fighters, you’re overcomers. I think that says a lot. That says that you’re resilient. That says you can go against the odds of what people may think and you can come out on top, regardless of how it looks at you. Like 20-17 with two minutes to go and we were able to pull it off 24-20. So survivor, fighter; at the end of the day it’s a resilient team that plays for 60 minutes.”