The Day After: Cards are serious contenders

Share This Story

John Czarnecki

John Czarnecki has been the editorial consultant for "FOX NFL Sunday" since its 1994 inception. This season marks Czarnecki's 32nd year covering the NFL. He is one of 44 selectors to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Last night was what Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt envisioned when he switched defensive coordinators after losing a Super Bowl. For the first time ever, the Cardinals looked like the Steelers when that Pittsburgh team used to dominate. The Steelers have since lost their swagger, but the Cardinals have forever talked tough. Against the Vikings, the finally played like real-deal contenders. Yep, folks, there's a serious new player in the NFC playoff picture.
Granted, there remain some big ifs attached to these Cardinals, definitely the NFL's most-talented team that purports so much Jekyll & Hyde comparisons. They finally imposed their defensive will on somebody other than Seattle or Chicago. And there was never a lull, a typical Arizona trademark, where they seemingly take off a series or two because they feel like it. When they opened the season 1-2, some people I know put a fork in them. First-year defensive coordinator Bill Davis, who was around Dick LeBeau in Pittsburgh back in the early 1990s, came up with a creative scheme that seemingly denied Brett Favre the middle of the field last night, thus negating all those crossing patterns he's been living on this season. Favre, who had tossed only three interceptions before last night, looked confused and was definitely rattled. He had two interceptions and it could have been four if Adrian Wilson had better hands. But who is complaining, considering the Cardinals were the first team to make Favre look like a 40-year-old while also stuffing Adrian Peterson, limiting him to 19 yards on 13 carries. This was a major double whipping. Besides the customary excellent show of Kurt Warner to Larry Fitzgerald and his two receiving sidekicks, the Cardinals had two significant stars, and they were new players. Jeremy Bridges played admirably for left tackle Mike Gandy, shutting down Jared Allen, who had no tackles and no sacks while playing in second gear all night. The other guy was 5-foot-8 reserve cornerback Michael Adams, who played much taller and stuck with every Minnesota receiver in his vicinity. He's very good covering slot receivers and he's always been a fierce tackler on special teams. The only negative is that when isolated on the outside, some taller receivers take liberties with his height disadvantage. Adams deserved a game ball, considering he had his first interception of the season. He's more aggressive than the man he replaced, Ralph Brown. The highlight of the night came on the quote sheet, where Bridges said: "This was one of the funnest games I've played in my life. I'm hoarse right now because I ran my mouth the whole game. He (Allen) started getting frustrated and he got real corny with the things he was saying."

December doldrums

Poor Tony Romo. He completed a franchise-high 41 passes against the Giants, but he still lost and now the only thing being mentioned in Dallas is how the Cowboys are 5-11 in December-January games since 2006. Or since Romo became the starter. They now face a must-win game next Sunday against the Chargers, who won their seventh straight on Sunday and are coached by Norv Turner, the offensive coach that owner Jerry Jones rejected in favor of Wade Phillips. Jones wanted a defensive genius over Turner, one of the game's best play-callers. Jones also figured that Jason Garrett could rev up his offense. Unlike Phillips, Turner's team has won three playoff games — for some reason, they are the one team that Indianapolis doesn't like to play — and his Chargers play best late in the season. The Chargers are 15-0 in December under Turner. This comparison will be mentioned a million times on Dallas sports talk radio this week even though in San Diego the fans aren't really sold on Turner, either. Yes, the Cowboys are pretty talented, but they continue to lack a knockout punch or the will to deliver it. They were up 10-0 on the Giants in New Jersey and still blew it. They haven't won a playoff game since 1996. That was also the last year the Cowboys had a winning record in December. They are 19-32 in December since 1996. "I don't think it's a mental block," Phillips said when asked about the Cowboys' December woes. "I think it's something you (the media) made up. We'll see what happens with this football team and that's what we got to do. We can change." There is no better football player on the Cowboys than tight end Jason Witten. He had 14 receptions for a career-high 156 yards against the Giants. Witten said the obvious: "We've got to challenge ourselves and find a way to play. We have to get back to it and forget all this December stuff. I'm not trying to avoid it or say it's not true. We've got to put it away. You let another one slip and you're really in trouble."

Sunday Goats

Steelers safety Ryan Mundy: In the disastrous fourth-quarter collapse, Mundy gave teammate William Gay a concussion (he won't play Thursday against the Browns), committed a costly roughness penalty with a head shot to Johnnie Lee Higgins and was out of position on the Raiders' winning touchdown by Louis Murphy, who caught a 75-yarder earlier. Redskins kicker Shaun Suisham missed a chip-shot field goal in the final minutes that should have knocked the Saints from the unbeaten ranks. Yes, the snap was late and high, but kickers must adjust. Jim Zorn's reaction was total shock like he was living a bad dream. Washington has now lost three heart-breakers in succession.

Why Not Buehler?

Cowboys kicker Nick Folk has missed five of his last seven field-goal attempts and seven on the season, but the team doesn't want to consider rookie kickoff artist David Buehler. They don't want to ruin Folk's confidence. But when he misses again, with momentum or the game on the line, someone will be sorry.

Avert your eyes

It was difficult watching the Vikings defensive captain E.J. Henderson when he fractured the femur in his left leg when fellow Viking, rookie safety Jamarca Sanford, missed tackling Tim Hightower in the open field and went low. Sanford's helmet caught Henderson's leg as it was fully extended. Henderson was chasing after Hightower on the play. It's the second consecutive season that Henderson has had his season ended by an injury. Henderson remained in Phoenix to have the broken leg set and now the Vikings will be forced to start 2009 fifth-round pick Jasper Brinkley in the middle. Henderson, who had his 2008 season ended by a foot injury after only four games, was Minnesota's leading tackler with 89 tackles. He also had two sacks, five pass breakups and a fumble recovery.

Mr. Cheap Shot

The next time the Giants play the Cowboys, Flozell Adams better come with his head on a swivel. Justin Tuck and his closest friends will be looking for the Cowboys' left tackle after his pushdown nearly started a full-scale brawl at the end of Sunday's first half.

Much Ado About Nothing

Michael Vick's return to Atlanta was greeted by a mixture of boos and cheers in the Georgia Dome, but he still doesn't resemble the quarterback whose special skills and talents once warranted the game box of the Madden video game. But I do give Eagles coach Andy Reid props for allowing him to lead the team onto the field and play some quarterback in mop-up time.
Tagged: Bears, Cowboys, Raiders, Vikings, Saints, Giants, Eagles, Redskins, Cardinals, Steelers, Chargers, Mike Gandy, Flozell Adams, Brett Favre, Kurt Warner, Adrian Wilson, Adrian Peterson, Jason Witten, E.J. Henderson, Jeremy Bridges, Tony Romo, Larry Fitzgerald, Jared Allen, Justin Tuck, Shaun Suisham, William Gay, Nick Folk, Johnnie Lee Higgins, Michael Adams, Ryan Mundy, Tim Hightower, Jasper Brinkley, David Buehler, Jamarca Sanford, Louis Murphy Jr.

More Stories From John Czarnecki

More Than Sports on MSN