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Cardinals Discuss Keys to Second-Half Success

The Cardinals officially start the second half of their season Sunday against the Carolina Panthers.

Nine weeks in, nine weeks to go. 

In a new 18-week season, the Arizona Cardinals officially begin the second half of the season Sunday against the Carolina Panthers.

The first half went nearly as well as it could. Arizona owns the best record in the league at 8-1.

But everything is amplified as the weather cools everywhere but in Arizona, as running back James Conner put it. 

All that the Cardinals want to accomplish—making the playoffs, winning the division, being in a favorable situation for a playoffs run—is in Half 2. 

Last year this was the case, and the Cardinals turned a 5-2 start eight weeks in to a 3-6 finish. But not only is the team's record better entering the second half, there is confidence that it is a different squad in maturity, depth and talent. 

What does it take to own the second half of the season? Let us highlight the ways:

Health

The elephant in the room. 

The Cardinals are not healthy heading into Sunday's Week 10 matchup against the Carolina Panthers. 

Nearly every position group is banged up. Quarterback Kyler Murray, wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins and running back Chase Edmonds could all be out this week after playing a combined one snap last Sunday.

But the bye week draws near, a needed reset after what will be 11 straight games. 

"Everyone here is thinking about it, but at the end of the day, this is NFL ball," linebacker Isaiah Simmons said. 

"Next guy up has to be able to come in and get the job done at the end of the day. It's going to be nice to get to the bye week just for the fact of being able to get some of our key players back. But this I feel like really shows us how good we really are as a team, just being able to go out there each week and just perform to a level we could perform."

Until then, the Cardinals need to manage their injuries and rely on depth, as the team did this week. 

Head coach Kliff Kingsbury gave the players Wednesday off of normal practice to run walkthroughs instead. This could be a weekly occurrence until the bye, which is later this year than several have said they would like.

Physicality

Conner made the point that there is sometimes a tendency among players to be less physical down the stretch. The weather is cold, hands are chapped and crackly, and contact is even more impactful. 

A team being 100% healthy is a rare occurrence this late in the season.

But, Conner said it is a must for the Cardinals to be more physical every week. 

"We've got to be the team that runs toward the contact," Conner said. "It's hard to talk about the weather stuff out here since it's perfect every day. But yeah, just a mentality thing that's been instilled in me for some time."

He called it his "back-east" mindset. 

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No one's hands will be chapped in Arizona, but it's difficult to be hard-nosed every week for 17 games. 

Arizona wanted to get more physical for this season. It brought in Conner, a big and powerful runner. 

Center Rodney Hudson adds a physical presence as well as mental strength up front. Before he was injured, defensive end J.J. Watt was imposing and still is off the field. 

Last week, despite various injuries, the Cardinals were the more physical team in a 31-17 win. 

“I would attribute it a lot to the players we brought in," Kingsbury said. "We knew that was an area we had to improve upon. We were a young team that was growing, and we brought in some tough-minded guys that are leaders and bring intensity to the practice field each and every day. It’s been showing up on Sundays.”

Adjustments

Defensive coordinator Vance Joseph has been a coach in the NFL since 2005.

To him, the difference between a good first-half team and one that succeeds all the way through is a squad that adjusts before opponents catch on. 

"Good teams understand that it's going to get harder each and every week," Joseph said. "Teams have two months of film on you, so the good coaches and good staffs have plans to adjust before they have to adjust . . . The players understand that the more we win the harder it is going to get."

Photo: Alex Weiner, Sports Illustrated

The Cardinals have had to be adaptive this year based on fluctuating injuries and COVID-19 cases. 

Nose tackle Corey Peters understands that while the team is off to a good start, there is still plenty that needs to improve going into the second half.

"Just all around being more sharp, [stop] giving up things that we've prepared for," Peters said. "I think that's one of our main focuses, the things that we cover in practice."

Joseph also mentioned staying consistent in practicing hard, eating and sleeping well. 

Depth

Whether it is Colt McCoy taking over at quarterback last week or Antonio Hamilton at cornerback in Week 5, Arizona's players have looked prepared even when thrown in.

"The standard is the standard and the next guy's got to come and execute at a high level," Kingsbury said. "Guys are holding each other accountable. And so as a staff that that really makes it easier on us as coaches."

This sentiment has been preached all year. Again, it could be typical talk, but the Cardinals have lived by it. 

Peters said that it starts with preparation.

"The way we practice, everybody gets reps, everybody gets opportunities to get on film," Peters said. "So when it comes time for even like a practice-squad guy to get called up for a game, it's not their first time playing in the defense. Those guys practice with us every week, regardless if you know they're going to be up or not."

Peters also praised the Cardinals' roster depth, which could be needed this week more than most. 

But, Arizona has overcome a lot this year without missing a beat.