VINCE MAROTTA

Don’t look now, but playoffs aren’t out of the question

Dec 12, 2011, 3:01 AM | Updated: 3:16 pm

“Playoffs? You want to talk about playoffs? You
kiddin’
me? Playoffs? I
just hope we can win a game.” – Jim Mora, coach of the
Indianapolis Colts,
November 25, 2001 after a loss to the San Francisco 49ers.

After the Arizona Cardinals blew a 21-point lead and lost
to the Baltimore
Ravens on October 30th to fall to a woeful 1-6, I bet a
lot of you started
feeling a lot like Jim Mora did ten years ago — just
hoping
the Birds would
win another game.

On Halloween, there was talk of the Cardinals’
hat being thrown
into the “Suck for Luck” sweepstakes. Two weeks before
Christmas, that
talk has shifted to hope for a playoff run.

Ken Whisenhunt’s team has won three straight and five of
their last six to
improve their record to 6-7 with three games to play.
Maybe it’s the holiday egg nog talking, but all three of
the remaining games
on their schedule — home vs. Cleveland, at Cincinnati and
home against
Seattle–are infinitely winnable. Is 9-7 out of the
question?

No.

Is it unlikely?

Maybe. But at least there’s a chance.

The Cardinals defense has, at the very least, reached a
comfort level with
new coordinator Ray Horton’s defense. More accurately,
they’re playing
winning football. Sunday’s victim, the NFC West champion
San Francisco
49ers, ran headfirst into a big red brick wall after
halftime
during the Cardinals’ 21-19 win. In the 2nd half, the
49ers had 78 yards
of offense, and 37 of it came on a touchdown run by Frank
Gore. That was the only play the Niners ran in Arizona
territory in the 2nd half.

Other than that, San Francisco had 41 yards and two first
downs in the
game’s final 30 minutes.

The Cardinals’ defense stiffened in the red zone, holding
the 49ers to
three field goal attempts in their three trips inside the
20-yard line.

Offensively, Arizona is doing just enough to win — they
haven’t scored more than 23 points in any of their last
five wins — and quarterback John
Skelton has been the poster boy for that. Pressed into
duty early in the
game for an injured Kevin Kolb, Skelton had his typical
up-and-down
performance. There were the highs of his touchdown passes
to Early
Doucet, Larry Fitzgerald and Andre Roberts and there were
the lows of his
three turnovers.

But somehow, with a defense that prevents teams from
getting into the
endzone, Skelton overcomes his wrongdoings and wills this
team to wins.
He’s kind of like a mini-Tebow, without all the kneeling
and hype.

After the Cardinals fell behind 19-7 early in the third,
Skelton went on to
complete 14 of his 17 passes for 195 yards and two
touchdowns in
helping construct the comeback. That’s a QB rating of
129.17. He makes
plays with his feet, he shakes off tacklers, and he does a
lot of the little
things that help a team win.

But, much like Tebow, I bet you cringed at least once
while watching
Skelton play on Sunday. I know I did.

“You guys stuck a fork in us quite a while ago, you know,”
Whisenhunt said following the win over the
49ers. “Our guys never let it get to
them.”

And for that, Whisenhunt and the rest of the Cardinals
deserve credit. Plenty of times in their history, we’ve
seen Cardinals teams get off to a bad start and coast the
rest of the season. That’s not happening this year.

Will these Cardinals join the 1970 Cincinnati Bengals as
the only teams in NFL history to qualify for the playoffs
after stumbling to a 1-6 record? That remains to be seen.

But they’re in position to at least avoid a losing season
for only the 6th time in the 24 years since they moved to
the Valley.

And even if that improbable quest for a playoff spot falls
short, they’re planting the seeds for 2012 and beyond.

Vince Marotta

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Don’t look now, but playoffs aren’t out of the question