Behold the 6-1 first-place Arizona Cardinals. They are a mere 98 days shy of seeing Super Bowl 49 played at their own University of Phoenix Stadium, and the thought of them making that game is becoming more plausible by the week.
GLENDALE, Ariz. -- It figures that it was John Brown. On an Arizona Cardinals team that keeps winning but still remains way too anonymous and under-appreciated, leave it to a rookie receiver who sounds like he should be in the witness protection program to haul in the game-winning 75-yard touchdown pass with 1:21 remaining, providing the difference in a game that had a playoff-level intensity surrounding it.
Behold the 6-1 first-place Cardinals. They are a mere 98 days shy of seeing Super Bowl 49 played at their own University of Phoenix Stadium, and the thought of them making that game is becoming more plausible by the week.
If there is a trait these Cardinals have quickly become known for, it’s that they seem to overcome any adversity or absence and find a way to work with the hand they are dealt, which showed itself once again in Arizona’s dramatic 24-20 win over the visiting Philadelphia Eagles. No Patrick Peterson after a frightful second-quarter collision that sent Arizona’s star cornerback to the locker room with a potential concussion? No problem, even if the timing of his injury was incredibly poor, given that Eagles quarterback Nick Foles threw for a club-record 36 completions on 62 attempts for 411 yards on Sunday. Just add it to the litany of subtractions and substitutes the Cardinals have endured and encountered ever since the offseason.
What’s one more at this point? The defining characteristic of these Cardinals is a resilience that seems to know no bounds. They play with no fear, and as you might have noticed by now, Bruce Arians’ team loses players, but not games. This was the third time already this season that Arizona has won a game despite trailing as it entered the fourth quarter (17-14 in this case), and in his year and a half in Philadelphia, Eagles coach Chip Kelly’s team had been 11-0 when leading after three quarters.
"Our guys will not give up for anything," Arians said. "[Reserve cornerback] Jerraud [Powers] jumps right out there [for Peterson]. I had all the confidence in the world. It’s a band of brothers that just will not quit. They will play for 60 minutes and until that final whistle blows, it’s usually not over. We found another way to win one."
The supremely confident Cardinals found multiple ways to secure this statement-game victory, a win that makes them 6-1 for the first time in 40 years, when the 1974 St. Louis Cardinals started that well en route to the NFC East title. And each of the game’s most pivotal moments spoke of how many different ways Arizona can beat you.
• There was Brown, the unsung and fleet-footed third-round pick from tiny Pittsburg State, hauling in that rainbow 75-yard bomb from quarterback Carson Palmer on third-and-5, barely beating a pair of Eagles defensive backs to the end zone with 81 seconds left in the game to put the Cardinals up 24-20.
• There was the almost overlooked goal line stand by Arizona’s defense on the previous Eagles drive, which blunted Philadelphia on third-and-1 from the two-yard line, forcing the Eagles to settle for a 20-yard Cody Parkey field goal and a 20-17 lead with just under two minutes remaining.
• And finally, there was the last-play heroics by Arizona reserve safety Rashad Johnson, who came up huge by forcing Eagles rookie receiver Jordan Matthews out of bounds before he could land with the potential game-winning 16-yard touchdown pass from Foles as time expired.
In a matchup that featured half of the NFL’s remaining one-loss teams, the Cardinals survived and showed once again that they are among the league’s elite, even if they entered this season low on outside expectations and big-name players.
"Every play mattered today, every single inch," said Johnson, who dropped off his man in coverage in order to go hit Matthews after Cardinals safety Tyrann Mathieu slipped and fell in the end zone, leaving Matthews open. "I’m just excited to be a part of this team. I’ve been here with the Cardinals now for six years, and when they kicked that field goal to go ahead with two minutes left -- I’ve been a part of a team that didn’t believe we could win. This team believes that it’s not over until every second is gone. I think we proved that today. We are a fighter. We are a contender. It’s not a fluke that we’re winning games."
Indeed. The numbers scream Johnson’s case. The Cardinals won seven of their final nine games last season, just missing the playoffs at 10-6. With this year’s 6-1 start factored in, Arizona is 13-3 over the course of its last 16 games, tied for the best record in the league over that span, along with Denver and New England.
The Cardinals are 4-0 in the NFC this season, 4-0 at home for the first time since their Super Bowl season of 2008 and 10-2 in their last 12 games played at the Big Toaster-looking edifice in Glendale. At 6-1 for only the seventh time in franchise history -- and five of those starts occurred in the ‘20s and ‘40s -- the Cardinals hold a sizable two-game lead over San Francisco (4-3) and Seattle (4-3) in the rugged NFC West.
No team has ever appeared in a Super Bowl in its own stadium, but Arizona has that why-not-us mentality going in a big way this season. And Arians, who is 16-7 since arriving in early 2013, has his team believing all things are possible.
"This was a great win," said Cardinals veteran defensive end Calais Campbell, who returned to the lineup this week after missing two games and part of a third from the effects of being blocked low by Broncos tight end Julius Thomas in a Week 5 loss at Denver. "This is one of those games that really defines who we are as a team. There were a lot of times to give up there, but we just kept fighting.
"This one was valuable for future games, because we know that when the game’s on the line in the future, we’ve been in it before. We’ve experienced it, and that should help us."
The Cardinals aren’t getting ahead of themselves when they talk about how big the nail-biting win over the Eagles might be come season’s end. Philadelphia (5-2) is an opponent that figures to be fighting all year for an NFC playoff berth, and Arizona just earned the upper hand on that front. The Eagles entered Sunday with a team-record 14 consecutive games scoring at least 21 points -- the league’s longest active streak -- but flew home with a loss that could haunt them.
"Everybody knows where teams are that are in the same conference as you," Campbell said. "These games can be tiebreakers in the end. As long as we keep winning and we have the best record, then we don’t have to worry about tiebreakers or anything else. But when you don’t, these games are the most critical because you know with these guys, you’re probably going to see them again in the playoffs.
"Six and one is exactly where we want to be right now, but this is a process. It’s about the dream, chasing the dream. Everybody who’s won the Super Bowl has said it’s these kind of games, if you get to the Super Bowl and actually win, these are the games you remember."
On this Cardinals team, even Palmer, the veteran quarterback, knows no one is indispensable. He missed three games this season with a nerve problem in his throwing shoulder, and his backup Drew Stanton stepped in and went 2-1 as the team’s starter. Palmer is 3-0 since returning to the lineup and loves the way this season is shaping up in the desert.
"It’s a great group of experienced guys and young guys," said Palmer, who threw for 329 yards and touchdowns of 80 and 75 yards to Larry Fitzgerald and Brown, without an interception. "We’re not a young team. We’re not an old team. We’re a team that’s got guys with Super Bowl rings. We’re a team that’s got some young guys that really don’t know how good they are yet. It’s just a very, very good group of guys. We’ll walk with a swagger about ourselves, but we’ll go right back to work on Wednesday and grind it out and get ready for a big game on Sunday."
Another big game is right there on the horizon for the Cardinals next week at Dallas, with the Cowboys sitting 6-1 entering their Monday night home game against Washington (2-5). Win that one, and Arizona will improve to 4-0 against the NFC East this season, 7-1 overall, and suddenly be seen as the NFC’s Super Bowl favorite at midseason.
It’s a designation that might have sounded improbable or even laughable at the start of the season, but these Cardinals are making it their reality as this special season unfolds. In Arizona, anonymous and under-appreciated may not be this team’s fate for much longer.