Three years ago, the NFC West was won by a 7-9 Seattle Seahawks team, causing many to dismiss the division as capable of producing perennial playoff powerhouses.
2013 paints a different picture, however. The division now features two of the premiere programs in the National Football League in the 49ers and the Seahawks, and two franchises not far away in Arizona and St Louis. What was once a division of patty-cakes now represents what could be the toughest division in the NFL.
As it stands right now, many are considering the division crown to be a two pony race, with San Francisco and Seattle all but locks to be postseason bound, and rightfully so. Since 2011, San Francisco boasts a 24-7-1 record, including last season’s Super Bowl appearance. It would be a mistake to not consider the defending NFC champs favorites in the division.
Those who don’t subscribe to the 49ers train of thought choose instead to align with the Seahawks, who followed last season’s 11-5 campaign with a solid offseason, signing Cliff Avril and trading for Percy Harvin. Even with Harvin starting the season on the PUP list, Seattle enters the 2013 season as No. 1 on ESPN.com’s Power Rankings, with eyes set on a Super Bowl appearance.
That brings us to the Arizona Cardinals, 26th on that same list. With eyes fixated on Seattle and San Francisco, the Cardinals find themselves in a strange, yet auspicious position. After complete franchise overhaul that saw the Birdgang bring in a new general manager, coaching staff and 26 new faces on the field, many are already writing off the Cardinals in 2013, throwing around labels such as “rebuilding”. Success may come sooner rather than later for the Cardinals, who are as equipped as any team in the NFC to vie for the postseason, whether as a dark horse or a legit contender.
Here’s the case for the Arizona Cardinals as 2013 contenders.
Defense Wins, Doesn’t It?
The old adage “defense wins championships” may be a little outdated, with star quarterbacks stealing the show more often these days. On the other hand, more and more emphasis is placed upon shutting down those opposing star quarterbacks.
Expect the Cardinals defense to do just that.
Last season, the Cardinals fielded an elite passing defense unit, trailing only the Chicago Bears in the NFL with 22 interceptions, and allowing the fifth-fewest passing yards as well. While the run defense will need to perform better (28th in the NFL), this unit is riddled with Pro-Bowl caliber talent in Patrick Peterson, Daryl Washington and Darnell Dockett.
Sure, some growing pains will come with the loss of defensive coordinator Ray Horton. But with game-changing talent at each level, newcomer Todd Bowles has all the pieces of a top-five defense. All he has to do is harness it.
The Spotlight is Not on University of Phoenix Stadium
Sure, there is always a competitive force driving every entity in the NFL, but there are no postseason expectations for this team to live up to. The same cannot be said about division rivals Seattle and San Francisco.
There is no real indication that either team will be less successful then the previous year, but when one is expected to be successful, it is easy to succumb to complacency. With complacency comes mental mistakes, and beating yourself on the football field.
Every team has to deal with this, but very few are picking the Cardinals to compete. Call it a chip on the shoulder, or just to prove the doubters wrong, the Birdgang will be playing for something in 2013.
Great Combination of Youth and Veterans
Throughout the whole free agency period, you could tell that new GM Steve Keim had a plan.
That plan culminated in attracting LB Lorenzo Alexander, DE Matt Shaughnessy, LB Karlos Dansby, as well as OT Eric Winston and active sacks leader John Abraham.
While none of these players are “big ticket items,” each is a hard-working, high character veteran. On a team that already boasted one of the class acts in the NFL in Larry Fitzgerald, there is no such thing as having too much knowledge and experience in an NFL locker room.
That’s not to say that the Cardinals are an “old” team. There is plenty of young budding talent in players like Michael Floyd, Patrick Peterson and Calais Campbell. Don’t forget about the Honey Badger, either, whose strong preseason has convinced some that a Defensive Rookie of the Year could be in his near future.
Veterans are important to make sure that these young guys keep their eyes on the prize, and Keim has done an excellent job crafting a locker room mentality conducive to that.
New Guys, New Scheme, New World Order
Turnover is a part of any business, and few teams experienced that to the extent of the Arizona Cardinals.
As I emphasized earlier, 26 players will identify themselves as Cardinals that did not do the same last year. But the sentiment trickles down from the top.
New head coach Bruce Arians brings an offensive mindset to a franchise that already has strong defensive presence. He now faces the challenge of bringing out the offense without sacrificing the defense.
On paper, however, it seems that the puzzle pieces are all there.
Arians’ downfield passing scheme should thrive with Carson Palmer behind a revamped offensive line, throwing to what could be the best set of wide receivers in the NFC West (Fitzgerald, Floyd and Roberts). Of course, any quarterbacking would be an improvement to a franchise that has forgotten what the term means since losing Kurt Warner.
Defensively, while Ray Horton fielded a very potent defense, Todd Bowles brings a system that could suit the Cardinals’ personnel strengths better. Bowles has said he likes to involve the defensive ends more in the pass rush, whereas Horton’s system tended to have the ends fill gaps for the linebackers to penetrate. No knock on Acho or Alexander, but Campbell and Dockett are just more imposing players. I expect the scheme change defensively to result in some increased productivity.
Maybe I’m just buying into the hype, but I’m sold on Arians and the attitude he has fostered in his few short months. I sense a team that is ready to win, and is ready to win now.
Is all this enough to bring postseason football back to Glendale? It’s time to let the games begin and find out, as the season opens Sunday, Sept 8th against the St Louis Rams.