GLENDALE, Ariz. — Are the Cardinals a playoff-worthy team?
In the current NFC standings, they are one game behind the 49ers and Panthers for that very distinction — in seventh place overall — after Sunday’s 27-24 win over the Texans at University of Phoenix Stadium.
When you watch their continued struggles on third down, in the run game and with turnovers, it’s hard to envision this team landing one of those six coveted spots when December ends.
But before you answer the question, take a look around the NFC at the growing pack of teams in contention for those berths.
Chicago has quarterback and defensive issues. Green Bay and St. Louis don’t have their quarterbacks. Carolina and Detroit already lost to Arizona, and Philadelphia hasn’t won a game at home.
Maybe it’s the salary-cap age that has produced so much mediocrity (or, as the NFL prefers, parity). Maybe it’s injuries. Or maybe it’s just one of those years. But at least one NFC team this season is going to show up to the playoffs with visible warts.
“Why not us?” Cardinals tackle Eric Winston said, laughing. “I think every team in this league has a formula for being successful, and I think we’re starting to figure out what that formula is.
“Most importantly, I think we’ve put ourselves in a good spot.”
The Cardinals (5-4) spent their bye week self-scouting and tweaking the things they didn’t like on film. The defense wanted to get opponents into more third-and-long situations. The offense wanted to improve its third-down efficiency, improve red-zone efficiency, cut down on turnovers and improve … OK, just about everything.
The defense succeeded on Sunday, holding the Texans to 235 yards of offense and a 6-of-16 performance on third downs while sacking rookie quarterback Case Keenum three times.
The offense wasn’t as successful. They were efficient in the red zone, scoring two touchdowns and two field goals in four such possessions. But they turned the ball over three times and went 3 for 10 on third downs, which meant they ran only 62 plays.
“Turnovers are the one thing that we’ve got to find a way to nip,” receiver Larry Fitzgerald said. “If you don’t score points you’ve got to be able to punt it away and leave your defense an opportunity to get set. There are definitely areas where we need to get better.”
Maybe that will happen; maybe it won’t. Nine games into the season, and with a bye week of study behind them, this may be as good as it’s going to get for thus unit. But at least they now have an understanding of their strengths.
When the season began, the Cardinals insisted they wouldn’t need time to jell or learn each other’s tendencies because that is what you’re supposed to say when you play in the NFL. But the truth is, there was a feeling-out period for a roster that turned over more than half its players from last season.
“When we first got here it was pretty much everybody’s first year,” linebacker John Abraham said, “except probably the owner.
“I think we’ve got more confidence now.”
Maybe familiarity and confidence will be enough for the Cardinals, who face woeful Jacksonville next week, and still have games against two teams (St. Louis and Tennessee) whose quarterbacks are injured and out for the season.
“Coming out of the bye week, we wanted the chance to be in the hunt,” coach Bruce Arians said. “I think we are in the hunt, and we will see how they fall each week.”