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Dominating NFC West a step toward Cardinals’ ultimate goal

Arizona Cardinals running back David Johnson (31) his hit by St. Louis Rams outside linebacker Alec Ogletree (52) and safety Mark Barron (26) during the first half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Oct. 4, 2015, in Glendale, Ariz. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

TEMPE, Ariz. — Rashad Johnson didn’t pull punches when asked about the importance of winning division games like Sunday’s game in St. Louis against the Rams.

“Every game is important but it definitely means a little bit more in the division,” the Cardinals safety said. “We don’t like them, we want to beat them up and we want to make them look bad.”

The Rams are the only NFC West team to defeat the Cardinals this season and they did it at University of Phoenix Stadium in Week 4, handing the Cardinals a 24-22 decision that is Arizona’s only home loss of the season. That is enough incentive for Sunday’s rematch.

“To get that game back would be huge,” coach Bruce Arians said.

The Cardinals can accomplish another goal with a win at the Edward Jones Dome, however: they can secure a winning record in division play for the first time since Arians took over as coach, while moving one step closer to securing a first-round playoff bye ahead of an enormous Thursday night game against the Minnesota Vikings in Glendale.

Since the Cardinals moved from the NFC East to the NFC West in 2002, they have only recorded a winning record within the division four times, and only once has that record been better than 4-2. The 2008 team went 6-0 in the division and eventually advanced to the Super Bowl.

This year’s team is 3-1 in NFC West play and will host the Seattle Seahawks in the season finale.

“We’re always trying to win the West,” center Lyle Sendlein said. “That’s the general picture but a division game is like a two-game swing so it always is more important and we all know that.”

Winning division games isn’t the only way to achieve success as the Cardinals have proven this season with a 6-1 record outside the NFC West. It also doesn’t guarantee a playoff berth. The Rams are 3-0 in NFC West play; 1-7 against the rest of the league.

“I can’t put my finger on it other than you have to win the division to have a chance to play in January,” Rams coach Jeff Fisher said. “We’ve done that thus far, but we have failed outside the division at this point.”

Even so, there is an increased level of focus that emerges in division games — one that is necessary due to familiarity and heightened due to contempt.

“Everybody knows each other better so there’s definitely more of a chess game in these games,” Sendlein said. “It makes them that much more exciting and interesting.”

“We don’t like anybody in our division,” Arians added. “I’ll have dinner with them, but I ain’t liking them. I ain’t drinking with them.”

Johnson acknowledged all the advantages that winning division games provides, but he also admitted that NFC West games are about bragging rights and ego as much as anything.

“You know you’re going to see these guys again real soon so you want to impose your will on your division and let them know that you’re the big dogs of the group,” he said. “We want to dominate them; get them doubting themselves. We want to let them know it’s our division and we’re going to be hanging onto to it for a while.”

Cardinals year-by-year NFC West records

2015: 3-1

2014: #3-3

2013: 2-4

2012: 1-5

2011: 4-2

2010: 1-5

2009: #4-2

2008: *6-0

2007: 3-3

2006: 4-2

2005: 3-3

2004: 2-4

2003: 1-5

2002: 1-5

* — Advanced to Super Bowl

# — Made playoffs

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