Balanced Cards aren't tumbling

December 13, 2009|By Sam Farmer On the NFL

One game into the 2009 season - a disheartening home loss to the 49ers - and the Cardinals were finished, history, kaput.

Or so most of us thought.

After all, eight of the previous 10 Super Bowl losers had missed the playoffs the next season, and why would the Cardinals be any different? Besides, the last time they made the postseason, they promptly tumbled off the table the next fall.

So nobody could really argue with Fox's Jimmy Johnson when, during the Week 2 pregame show, he said the Cardinals were toast.

"I know it's just one game, but stick a fork in them, they're done," he said at the time. "They lost a couple outstanding coordinators. They've got disgruntled receivers and a quarterback that's just a couple years younger than me, and he's hurt. With their schedule, it'll be tough for them to win three games by midseason."

That's not to pick on Johnson. He merely put to words what just about everyone was thinking, that the Cardinals would fade to black.

Of course, they've done nothing of the sort. The Cardinals (8-4) have won four of five and can clinch the NFC West with a victory Monday at San Francisco. Most remarkable, quarterback Kurt Warner has registered a 120-plus passer rating in each of his last four starts. Only Johnny Unitas in 1965 has equaled that feat, and nobody has strung together five such outings in a row.

We should have known it would be Warner who would sidestep the Super Bowl hangover, a player who has pulled off the improbable throughout his career.

"I understand why everybody was looking for us to collapse," Warner said Thursday in a phone interview. "We hadn't done anything. We were a 9-7 team (last season) that was very inconsistent, that got on a roll at the right time and played some great football. We had some talent, but we've had some talent here for a long time. The biggest question has always been consistency.

"But somewhere in that first four or five games of the season, we started to put it together."

This year, the Cardinals are a far more balanced and multidimensional team. They have an excellent passing game, of course, but also an improved ground attack and an offensive line and defense that played remarkably well last Sunday night in an unexpected 30-17 thrashing of the Vikings.

"We're playing more complete football now than we did at any time last year," Warner said. "And that's what excites you.When we put it together and play, we can play with anybody."

Flipping a switch: NFL teams don't take pride in their turnovers, but the league as a whole sure does.

Only these "turnovers" aren't interceptions or fumbles but worst-to-first turnarounds in which a team goes from the bottom of its division to the top in one season. When that happens, it underscores the competitive balance of the league. And it has happened at least once every year since 2002.

The Saints are the latest to pull off a U-turn, clinching the NFC South a year after finishing buried beneath the Panthers, Falcons and Buccaneers. They join the 2003 Chiefs and Panthers, 2004 Falcons, 2005 Bears, 2006 Eagles and Saints, 2007 Bucs and 2008 Dolphins.

Streaking: The Colts are four victories away from a 16-0 regular season, something only the Patriots have accomplished. But they could be just four quarters away from surpassing the Patriots on another page of the NFL record book.

The Colts have won 21 consecutive regular-season games, tying the record set by the 2006-08 Patriots for the longest winning streak in league history. What's more, the Colts have extended their record of seven consecutive seasons of 12 or more victories.

"You try to tell these guys that when you win a couple in a row, or three or four in a row, this is not normal," quarterback Peyton Manning said. "It's not normal to win 10 or 11 or 12 games every year. But these guys that have been here five years would tell me it is normal for us. That's all they've done."

Sam Farmer covers the NFL for the Los Angeles Times. sfarmer@tribune.com

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