September 29, 2014

TEMPE, Ariz. (AP) The Arizona Cardinals won their first three games of the season, earning a week of practice without pads.

It gave the players and coaches time to rest, recover and reflect upon being one of two undefeated teams left in the NFL.

Now that the bye week is over, it's back to hitting. Starting 3-0 is great, but they don't want to let it go to waste by losing their edge.

''Just hit each other; that's why we had pads on today,'' Cardinals coach Bruce Arians said of what his team needs to do coming out of the bye. ''We didn't have pads on last week because we didn't need to, but we'll have `em on twice this week to make sure we're game-ready.''

The Cardinals have reason to be wary of becoming complacent.

Just two years ago, Arizona opened the season 4-0, becoming one of the surprise teams in the NFL.

The Cardinals' fall was just as surprising: 11 losses in 12 games to close out the season.

This team appears better equipped to handle success.

The Cardinals won seven of their final nine games last season and the confidence has carried over even if they did miss the playoffs.

Though there were some holes to fill, particularly on defense, Arizona has managed to play well so far, entering Week 5 with Cincinnati as the NFL's only undefeated teams.

The Cardinals have shown a bit of resolve, too, rallying from halftime deficits to win each of their three games, against three pretty good teams, no less.

''We've won these three games and we're excited about it, but we have a much bigger goal, a much more mature and more confident team,'' Cardinals safety Rashad Johnson said. ''Then, there was a little bit excitement, a little bit of jittery about where we were headed, but this team has a lot of mature guys, a lot of old guys that are playing it just a week at a time.''

The bye week came early in the season, but at a good time for the Cardinals.

They've had several key players dealing with injuries, including quarterback Carson Palmer, who has missed the past two games with a nerve issue in his throwing shoulder.

Drew Stanton has played well in Palmer's place, winning both of his starts - over the New York Giants by playing it safe and over San Francisco by taking control of the offense - but Palmer could be back under center Sunday at Denver.

Arians is hoping Palmer will begin throwing on Wednesday and practice the rest of the week will determine if he's able to go.

''Wednesday and Thursday will be huge this week,'' he said.

Palmer isn't the only player who benefited from the extra time off.

Starting guard Paul Fanaika is battling a knee injury, but Arians said he will return to practice on Wednesday. Cornerback Antonio Cromartie said he'll be good to go after injuring his knee against San Francisco and taking it easy in practice last week. Johnson practiced Monday with a cast on his hand after breaking his thumb against the 49ers.

''I don't know how many guys would have played last Sunday,'' Arians said. ''I'm sure we would have been without three who wouldn't have played. It's going to happen sometime down the road. With 13 weeks in a row, they're going to get beat up, so it'll be next man up.''

The Cardinals will likely need everyone against the Broncos in the Mile High City on Sunday.

The defending AFC champions still have quarterback Peyton Manning and seem to have a better, faster defense than a year ago.

Arians knows all about Manning and what he can do after serving as Indianapolis' quarterbacks coach from 1998-2000 and playing against him in the years since.

The difficulty will be trying not to overthink how to stop him. Manning is one of the NFL's greatest tacticians, able to recognize defenses and make calls at the line of scrimmage with a series of shouts and hand gestures.

Trying to figure out what he's doing can leave opposing players and coaches' heads spinning.

''You can get paralysis of analysis,'' Arians said. ''Just play the game. Don't get caught up in all his gyrations and all the things that are going on because he's really good at it, especially at home.''

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