Cardinals trying to maintain place in NFC West pecking order

Sep 29, 2017, 8:43 AM | Updated: 11:14 am
Arizona Cardinals wide receiver Jaron Brown (13) scores a touchdown as Dallas Cowboys cornerback An...
Arizona Cardinals wide receiver Jaron Brown (13) scores a touchdown as Dallas Cowboys cornerback Anthony Brown defends during the first half of an NFL football game, Monday, Sept. 25, 2017, in Glendale, Ariz. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)
(AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

Goal No. 1 for the Arizona Cardinals every season is to win the NFC West. It’s a logical goal. Division titles ensure playoff berths, they create a mental edge over chief rivals and they become a springboard to postseason success.

Great organizations dominate their divisions.

Since division realignment in 2002, the New England Patriots have won 13 of the last 15 AFC East titles and they have won four Super Bowls in that span. The Green Bay Packers have won nine NFC North titles since 2002, and a Super Bowl. The Pittsburgh Steelers have won seven AFC North titles since 2002, two Super Bowls and played in three. The Indianapolis Colts have nine AFC South titles since 2002, a Super Bowl win and two Super Bowl berths. The Denver Broncos lead the AFC West with six titles since 2002, they won a Super Bowl and have played in two.

It’s crystal clear which organization owns the NFC West from the graphic below. Since division realignment, the Seattle Seahawks own a sizeable edge on the Cardinals, San Francisco 49ers and St. Louis/Los Angeles Rams in division titles. It’s no coincidence they also have a Super Bowl title and a second Super Bowl berth while the other three teams have no Super Bowl wins.

NFC West Division titles
Seattle (8): 2016, 2014, 2013, 2010, 2007, 2006, 2005, 2004

Arizona (3): 2015, 2009, 2008

San Francisco (3): 2012, 2011, 2002

St. Louis/LA Rams (1): 2003

The Cardinals have settled into a No. 1 contender status the last three seasons in the NFC West, finishing either first or second in the division all three years, but the NFC West’s contenders have experienced cyclical shifts. The 49ers, under coach Jim Harbaugh, had fierce division battles with the Seahawks from 2011-2013. The Kurt Warner led Cardinals won a pair of division titles, and when the divisions first realigned, the Rams were a power.

The NFC West may be experiencing another shift. While the Seahawks are just 1-2 due to a tough early road schedule and a pair of one-score losses in those games, they still look like the team to beat.

Their No. 1 challenger is unclear. The Cardinals have not inspired in a 1-2 start, but the Los Angeles Rams are 2-1. L.A. leads the NFL in scoring offense at 35.7 points per game, and the Rams are seventh in average yards at 374.3.

It’s tough to gauge the Rams’ progress since their wins have come over Indianapolis (1-2) and San Francisco (0-3), but previous editions of the Rams did not win those games and the young offensive weapons they feature with quarterback Jared Goff, running back Todd Gurley and wide receiver Sammy Watkins cannot be ignored.

The Cardinals won’t see the Rams until an Oct. 22 meeting in L.A. By then, the Rams’ identity will be clearer. In the meantime, the Cardinals have to make sure they haven’t slipped behind division doormat San Francisco, which is in the third year of a rebuild as it comes to town on Sunday.

Last season, the Cardinals faced another 0-3 division opponent at home in Week 4. A 17-13 loss to the Rams dropped Arizona to 1-3. The Cards never climbed over the .500 mark the rest of the season.

“Their record does not matter,” Palmer said of the 49ers. “Every time we play San Francisco, they give us their best shot. They’ve always played really, really well against us — really, really hard against us. They’re playing hard on film, and this is a very good defense.”

There is an additional challenge this week. The Cardinals played Monday; the 49ers haven’t played since Sept 21, affording them ample rest and preparation time.

“We’re in a difficult spot, coming off a loss on a short week with a team that’s got 10 or so days of rest,” Palmer said. “This is a huge game for us.”

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