Cards storm back into NFC picture

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Don't forget about us, the Arizona Cardinals said in perfect unison Sunday night, conveying the most surprising message of the NFL's Week 13 with their 30-17 dismantling of the previously well-respected Minnesota Vikings at University of Phoenix Stadium. Commanding our attention with their most complete game of the season, the Cardinals opened December with an eye-opening performance that signaled they intend to be playing well into January. Yet again.

"I'm anxious to go watch it on the news because I'm pretty sure everybody is going to talk about what Brett Favre did wrong, and not talk about how our defense stood up today," Cardinals defensive tackle Darnell Dockett said. "But we're going to keep humble hearts, because we're going to have to play that team again. I told our guys, we just basically beat a Pro Bowl team. Everybody on that team could go to the Pro Bowl. It's like an all-star team."

I'm willing to forgive Dockett his well-developed sense of hyperbole, because his point is entirely valid. As much as this game could have been boiled down to a tale of two quarterbacks, with Favre's struggles and Kurt Warner's triumphant return to the lineup, its significance and potential ramifications extend far beyond those subplots.

This was the type of thorough Cardinals win that convinced me New Orleans and Minnesota might not have a hammerlock on the NFC after all. In improving to 8-4 and all but salting away the NFC West, Arizona put on the kind of show that served notice it will be a threat to reach Miami, no matter who it might have to go through.

Nobody yet this season had made Favre look all of his 40 years, but the Cardinals did, forcing him into his first two-interception game of the year, sacking him three times, and limiting the Vikings to a season-low-tying 17 points. Nobody yet had bottled up Adrian Peterson with such ease, but Arizona managed it, holding the all-world Minnesota running back to just 19 yards on 13 carries, for a 1.5-yard average. And nobody yet had completely solved the Vikings' vaunted Jared Allen-led pass rush, but again Arizona rose to that challenge. Minnesota didn't sack Warner even once, and the Cardinals' 38-year-old spring chicken of a passer responded by ridding the Vikings pass defense for 285 yards and three touchdowns, without an interception.

I don't know about you, but it certainly looked to me like Warner's head has cleared nicely after he missed last week's loss at Tennessee due to lingering concussion symptoms. It was Favre who looked a little fuzzy, throwing his fourth and fifth interceptions of the season, narrowly avoiding two others, and snapping his four-game streak without a pick.

"Any time you can play with one of the best teams in the league, and you can beat them, it gives you confidence moving forward that you can play with anybody in the league," Warner said. "That's what games like this do. It's still a middle-of-the-season game, and doesn't have a lot of bearing in the big picture. But it gives you confidence moving forward that we can play with the big dogs.

"The key for us is to show up that way every week. We've had these kind of games over the last couple years. But the hard thing for us is to stack them, and to continue to play at this high level, week in and week out. It was definitely a big stage, a big game, and a good football team we played against. To put together this effort, it's definitely got to be up there [among our best games]."

Near misses get you nowhere in the NFL, but the fact remains that Arizona is a 99-yard Vince Young-led drive away from being 9-3 at the moment, with five consecutive wins and eight victories in its past nine games. As is, its 7-2 since starting 1-2, and these Cardinals have really put things together. But until Sunday night, we really hadn't noticed, because the Saints were streaking to 12-0 and the Vikings were surging to 10-1 behind Favre's historic season.

Rest assured Minnesota now realizes that Arizona remains the defending NFC champions. The Vikings were humbled for the first time this season, and it was at the hands of a team they beat soundly in this same stadium last December.

"I thought they played extremely well," said Favre, who finished 30 of 45, for 275 yards passing, but those two big interceptions. "Really, if you look at the Cardinals up until this game, in a lot of ways, they've probably underachieved from their standpoint. But they didn't tonight. They played like a team that was in the Super Bowl last year."

In truth, Arizona played better than last year's Super Bowl Cardinals, and looks to be much better than it was last year at this time, when it was 7-5 and in the beginning stages of its late regular-season bout of mediocrity. That team got hot in the playoffs and stormed into the Super Bowl against Pittsburgh. This team looks capable of dominating whenever it plays its game.

"Not bad for a post-Super Bowl hangover," Cardinals head coach Ken Whisenhunt told me after the game, taking a not-too-subtle shot at all those critics who questioned whether Arizona would struggle with following up on last year's success. "This showed us a lot about our team tonight."

That it did. It showed that the Cardinals' deep receiving game looks healthy and ready to roll, with Larry Fitzgerald (8 catches for 143 yards and a season-long 34-yard touchdown), Anquan Boldin (7 for 98 yards, two touchdowns) and Steve Breaston (64-yard first-quarter punt return) all making crucial plays.

It showed that Warner is fine and still on top of his game, and that the Cardinals offensive line can protect him, even if reserve offensive lineman Jeremy Bridges was making his first career start at left tackle, in place of the injured Mike Gandy. And it showed that Arizona's defense is hungry again. Defensive coordinator Bill Davis had his guys flying around all night, getting good pass pressure with just four rushers most of the time, but making aggressive moves toward the ball, and punishing the Vikings with their tackling.

"They got after [Favre] real good up front, and that allowed us to play better in the back," Cardinals cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie said. "We knew once they got down and they had to start passing, we were going to get our hands on a few footballs. It was like a playoff atmosphere out there; playing one of the best teams in the league on a Sunday night in the national spotlight."

But the Cardinals were more than ready for their close-up. They were primed and eager to wipe out the pain of last week's final-play loss at Tennessee, where Young's heroics cost them a near-certain win. Getting past that defeat so quickly is maybe the most valuable discovery the Cardinals made about themselves Sunday night.

"I think we continue to grow up," Warner said. "We're getting smarter. We're getting more mature. We're getting more consistent than we've been in the past. We're learning how to prepare and feed off one another. And both sides continue to show up week in and week out, even though it may not be a full 60 minutes.

"We don't have one game where the offense doesn't show up at all, or the defense doesn't show up at all. We're coming together as a team, and when we all show up and make plays at timely moments in games, we can win games. Then every once in a while we explode with a game like this, where everybody comes together and we play well. We've done that better this year than any year I've been here, and I think that shows the maturity."

The Cardinals' new-found maturity was on full display against Minnesota. As was their intention to once again interject themselves into the Super Bowl discussion in the NFC. The champion Steelers might have all but eliminated themselves in Week 13, but not Arizona. The Cardinals look like they're just starting to arrive.