NFL

At 5-4, Cardinals legitimately in playoff hunt

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TEMPE, Ariz. (AP)

At 5-4, the Arizona Cardinals can truly, with a straight face, be called a playoff contender.

Under first-year coach Bruce Arians, the Cardinals have matched their win total from last season with a team built around a strong defense and special teams. The offense has a ways to go but performed better in the team's last two outings, home victories over NFL underachievers Atlanta and Houston.

Sunday's 27-24 win over the Texans leaves the Cardinals a game behind wild card front-runners San Francisco and Carolina.

Arizona has beaten Carolina and the Cardinals play at home against San Francisco in the final game of the regular season.

Next up is a game at Jacksonville, where the Jaguars are 1-8 after beating Tennessee.

''I feel very good,'' Arians said on Monday. ''We're a game behind San Francisco and we still have to play them here. Obviously, looking ahead will get you in trouble, but I like where we're at right now.''

As has often been the case, the defense anchored Sunday's victory.

Houston led 17-14 at the half, but the Texans managed just 41 yards of offense in the second half.

''We've had two or three second-half performances that were out of sight,'' Arians said. ''I thought this was maybe the best. If we would've caught the three interceptions for touchdowns that we had in our hands, it wouldn't have been even close.''

Ageless John Abraham had another big game. The 35-year-old outside linebacker, in his 14th NFL season, had two sacks and that might become three as video is reviewed of a play that was credited to Frostee Rucker but probably should have gone to Abraham.

That crucial sack of Houston's Case Keenum came in the second half and lost 23 yards. According to Pro Football Reference, those were the most yards lost in a single play since New England's Rob Ninkovich sacked Denver's Tim Tebow for a 28-yard loss on Dec. 18, 2011.

On Sunday's first play from scrimmage, Abraham knocked the ball out of Keenum's hands and teammate Matt Shaughnessy returned the fumble six yards for an Arizona touchdown.

Abraham has five sacks - perhaps six - in the last three games. That gives him 127 for his career, most among active players. If he gets that third sack from Sunday, he would move into a tie with Hall of Famer Rickey Jackson for 11th on the all-time list.

Abraham's 47 forced fumbles also are the most among active players.

''Nobody thought we could be 5-4,'' Abraham said after Sunday's win, ''and we are going to keep it rocking like we are.''

The Cardinals had another outstanding performance from punter Dave Zastudil, who twice pinned the Texans at their 1-yard line. For the second time this season, special teams standout Justin Bethel blocked a field goal.

''He's a Pro Bowl player,'' Arians said. ''If he doesn't get voted in, it's a shame.''

The offensive line, considered a big weakness earlier this year, had its best game of the season, Arians said.

Because Arizona achieved victory No. 5, Arians gave all the players in their third pro year or more Monday off. Rookies and second-year players had to show up.

''Young guys don't get any days off,'' he said.

Two weeks from now, the Cardinals are home against Indianapolis. Given Arians' work last year as interim coach of the Colts while Chuck Pagano was being treated for leukemia - a performance that earned Arians coach of the year honors - it's bound to be a high-profile game.

But the coach said that in the NFL, there's no way any team can afford to look that far ahead.

''All of our focus is on Jacksonville,'' Arians said. ''If we lose any sight of that, they'll beat us. They're playing really well right now, especially on defense, and Chad Henne is playing pretty solid at quarterback for them right now. (Coach) Gus (Bradley) is doing a really good job.''

So, it could be said, is Bruce Arians.

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AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org

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Follow Bob Baum at www.twitter.com/Thebaumerphx

Tagged: Cardinals, Tim Tebow, Texans, John Abraham, Case Keenum

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