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Hunted Cardinals are exactly where they want to be

Arizona Cardinals linebacker Dwight Freeney (54) celebrates his sack against the Cincinnati Bengals during the second half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Nov. 22, 2015, in Glendale, Ariz. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)

TEMPE, Ariz. — At 8-2 with a three-game lead in the NFC West, the Arizona Cardinals find themselves in rare territory.

As of now, they are the hunted — not the hunter. And you know what? They like being in that position.

“Yeah, I think it is,” quarterback Carson Palmer said. “It’s nice to have a bulls-eye on your back and know that you have to bring your A-game week in and week out, whether you’re playing a team that’s 8-1 or a team that’s got a couple victories.

“It’s definitely the position you want to be in, and we’ve been on the other side. We were kind of sleeping on a lot of teams last year, and we snuck up on a lot of teams. You definitely would prefer to have everybody gunning for you.”

If the Cardinals — who jumped off to a 9-1 start last season — were sneaking up on teams then, they surely aren’t doing so now. Back-to-back Sunday Night wins over the Seattle Seahawks and Cincinnati Bengals sent a message to the rest of the NFL that they are a legitimate NFC contender, one that will need your best shot in order to beat.

For a team that has not won the division since 2009 and spent much of the time since looking up at their Sunday opponent, the San Francisco 49ers, it’s a stark reversal of roles. This year it’s the Cardinals who are looking to win the division and make a postseason run while the 49ers languish at 3-7 and last in the NFC West.

But whether they were expected to win the game or not is really of little importance to Arizona as it prepares for the matchup.

“Either way, because at the end of the day you’ve got that one goal,” safety Tony Jefferson said of where the Cardinals are at. “So whether you’re the hunter or getting hunted or whatever, it doesn’t really matter. You’ve got to win ball games.”

Jefferson said, actually, the Cardinals need to get out of this funk they’re making every game close. He feels like the team is making too many mental errors and is struggling with technique at times, which leads to games being closer than they need be.

“That’s a big thing with us is the small things, we just let little stuff add up and it eventually falls for the other team in a positive way, so we’ve got to fix that,” he said.

Maybe talking about how the Cardinals are not really playing well is a motivational ploy. After all, they are the only team ranked in the top five of the NFL in both offense and defense, so they’re clearly doing something right.

One sign of a good team, besides those rankings, of course, is never being satisfied while also constantly looking to improve.

That means there is no time for basking in the glow of what has been accomplished this season.

“No, you don’t ever look back,” head coach Bruce Arians said. “You’re always looking ahead to the next day. In February, you’ll look back and hopefully you can appreciate the journey.”

“I wish,” Palmer said when asked if he can appreciate what’s transpired thus far. “I’ve tried to learn to enjoy the wins and just enjoy them. But the window for enjoyment is so short because I can’t wait to get home to watch it on Sunday night late, at 1 or 2 in the morning, just to put it to bed. And, then put myself to bed, and get ready to get up and get to work.

“I try to enjoy it, but the window is so short and there is so much work to be done, you can’t sit and revel on a win for a couple days. You’ve got to enjoy it that night and be ready to get ready for the next opponent.”

The next opponent in this case is a 49ers team that would like nothing more than to pull off an upset and put a dent in Arizona’s postseason dreams.

Such is life at the top.

“You’d kind of prefer to be the hunted because you’ve done stuff up tot his point, but at the same time I still feel like we’ve got a target on our back,” linebacker Kevin Minter said. “Like, a big target on our back. So we’ve just got to keep going and play our ball.”

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