Cardinals’ season script should make them America’s darlings

GLENDALE, Ariz. — The Arizona Cardinals don’t sport self-aggrandizing titles like "America’s Team," but America loves an underdog, so America should love them.

The Cardinals played almost half their games this season without their starting quarterback. Their decimated defensive front seven looks nothing like it looked at the start of the season, and their coach is a 62-year career assistant who knows this one NFL head coaching shot will be his only NFL head coaching shot, so he’s going to let it all hang out.

Following Sunday’s 24-20 win over the Philadelphia Eagles at University of Phoenix Stadium, it’s looking like the perfect mix.

"It’s not a fluke that we’re winning games," safety Rashad Johnson said. "It’s hard to win games in this league, and 6-1 just says how good we are, how much of a contender we are, and how much we believe in one another."

If you didn’t understand how coach Bruce Arians’ moxie permeated his team, it was plain to see with the Cardinals facing third-and-5 at their own 25-yard line with 1:33 remaining.

Trailing by three, the Cardinals’ struggling offense needed a first down to keep its final drive alive. Quarterback Carson Palmer was a pedestrian 19 for 41 passing, and the offense was 6 for 16 on third downs.

Everybody figured Palmer would throw to the sticks. Play it safe.

Cardinals 24, Eagles 20

Not in Arians’ offense.

"You know we had players at the sticks," Arians said. "We had three guys at eight yards for first downs, but when there’s a touchdown involved in the play, never pass it up. Don’t play scared, play smart."

When Palmer saw a safety coming up on receiver John Brown, he gave Brown a signal at the line. Brown ran a double move with a fake inside, then took off with that jaw-dropping speed that got him drafted in the first place to haul in a 75-yard pass on his fingernails and stretch over the goal line for a touchdown as he was tackled.

"I was kind of thinking that he overthrew me a little bit, but it ended up being a great pass," Brown said. "It was right over my head; right in the basket."

It’s been common among Arizona media to wonder when the team’s myriad personnel losses will finally come back to bite. Arizona suffered another on Sunday when Pro Bowl cornerback Patrick Peterson left the game with a concussion that leaves his status in doubt for next week. 

But when the Cardinals play their eighth game of the season — marking the midpoint of the season — they will face the Dallas Cowboys with the best record in the NFC on the line.

Nobody saw that coming.

"This is one of those games that really defines who we are as a team," said defensive end Calais Campbell, who gutted out a still-healing MCL strain to record two tackles and provide an emotional boost. "There were a lot of times to give up there but we just kept fighting."

Sunday’s game was a bonanza of storylines. Larry Fitzgerald caught an 80-yard touchdown pass and finished just 12 yards shy of his career-high in receiving yards (172), leading him to quip: "I haven’t lost anything." 

Cornerback Antonio Cromartie recorded a pair of interceptions, his first of the season, including a first-half pick at the Arizona 2-yard line that kept the Eagles out of the end zone.  

Arizona’s offense went so dormant between Fitzgerald’s TD pass and Brown’s that the defense had to defend Philadelphia on consecutive second-half drives that began at the Eagles’ 44-, 49-, 46-, the Cardinals’ 48- and the Eagles’ 42-yard lines.

With the Eagles facing first-and-10 from the Arizona 11 with four minutes left, the Cardinals defense stiffened and held the Eagles to a field goal — a crucial stop that made possible Palmer’s winning TD pass to Brown.

And when the Eagles moved to the Cardinals’ 16 with 13 seconds left, the pass defense weathered three Nick Foles shots to the end zone to hand Philadelphia its second loss and open the nation’s eyes to what is happening out here in this NFL outpost.

"We’re not a young team, we’re not an old team," Palmer said. "We’re a team that’s got guys with Super Bowl rings. We’re a team that’s got some young guys that really don’t know how good they are yet.

"We’ll walk with a swagger about ourselves, but we’ll go right back to work on Wednesday and grind out Wednesday’s full-padded practice, grind out Thursday and get ready for a big game on Sunday."

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