NFL

Cardinals flying high behind aggressive defense

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TEMPE, Ariz. (AP)

Seeing Philadelphia receiver DeSean Jackson racing over the middle with the ball in his hands, Kerry Rhodes charged out of the end zone and stood him up. Jackson fought and wriggled, trying to get past the Arizona Cardinals safety, but Rhodes held his ground and wrestled him down at the 1-yard line.

Two plays later, Rhodes blindsided Eagles quarterback Michael Vick, causing a fumble that James Sanders scooped up and returned for a 93-yard touchdown.

Need a reason for the Cardinals' best start in 38 years? It's plays like that from their dominating defense.

''We have a swagger and a lot of confidence,'' Cardinals linebacker Daryl Washington said. ''We believe in one another and as the season progresses, we'll continue to get better.''

Expectations weren't exactly high for the Cardinals to start the season and eking out a win over Seattle in the opener didn't do much to sway opinions.

A 20-18 win over New England, one of Arizona's biggest road victories in recent years, helped a little, though the prevailing thought was more about what's wrong with the Patriots than how good are the Cardinals.

That changed Sunday against Philadelphia.

The Cardinals knocked Vick into their bench on the first play from scrimmage and kept coming after him, manhandling the Eagles for a 27-6 victory. Arizona sacked Vick five times, forced him to fumble twice - the big one leading to Sanders' touchdown return just before halftime - and spent most of the afternoon battering him and the rest of the Eagles.

The here-we-are win leaves the Cardinals as one of three undefeated teams left in the NFL, with Houston and Atlanta, and has them off to their best start since 1974, 14 years before the team moved to the desert.

''They're playing hard, they're believing in the scheme and it's a great feeling when everyone's playing the way they are,'' Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt said.

The defense has led the way.

While the offense has limited its mistakes and the special teams have come up with some big plays, the defense has simply dominated.

Led by a long-and-strong front line and a group of fast, attacking linebackers, the Cardinals have batted quarterbacks around like pinatas and left few gaps for running backs to slip through.

Arizona has allowed two touchdowns - none rushing - through three games and leads the NFL with 13.3 points against per game. The Cardinals held the Patriots under 20 points for the first time in 26 home games and kept the Eagles out of the end zone for the first time since the 2009 season finale.

Arizona has 12 sacks, second-best to Chicago's 14 in the NFL, and has spread the sack dances around, with seven different players getting at least one. The Cardinals also have at least two sacks in nine straight games, the NFL's longest current streak.

''Fast and frenetic,'' is how Sanders described Arizona's defense. ''We go out there and try to create havoc as a defense and we have done that pretty successfully through three weeks of the season.''

Particularly on Sunday.

Facing the NFL's most explosive offense through the first two games and the dynamic Vick, the Cardinals knocked the Eagles flat on their backsides with a show of brute force.

Vick, second in the NFL with 688 yards passing the first two games, had nowhere to turn from the opening snap, unable to escape Arizona's web of pass rushers. The Cardinals knocked him down at least a dozen times and had him winging passes into the stands to avoid sacks.

Arizona also did a good job of containing Vick when he tried to run, rarely letting him get more than a couple of yards when he took off. The one time Vick did get free, in the second quarter, he was dragged down from behind and came up limping.

Rhodes had his no-you-don't tackle at the goal line a few plays after that, the Cardinals forced two throw-aways with pressure on Vick, then Sanders raced off for his TD after Rhodes' blindside hit on the last play of the first half to put Arizona up 24-0.

When it was over, the Cardinals had held Philadelphia to 308 total yards - 163 below their average - forced three turnovers and limited Vick to 217 yards on 17-of-37 passing.

''No one respects our defense,'' Cardinals linebacker O'Brien Schofield said. ''No one respects our team, and that's OK. You have to earn respect. We have worked so hard, in practice and even in our walkthroughs, to be a really good team.''

Keep playing like this and the Cardinals will earn that respect quickly - if it isn't already here.

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Online: http://bigstory.ap.org/NFL-Pro32 and http://twitter.com/AP-NFL

Tagged: Eagles, Cardinals, Michael Vick, Kerry Rhodes, James Sanders

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