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"A Hard Push" To The Finish

Posted Dec 5, 2011

Standings aside, final four games are about progress for Cards

Teammates pile on LaRod Stephens-Howling after his game-winning touchdown Sunday.

At the end of last week, quarterback Kevin Kolb sat in front of his locker and tried to come up with a big picture analysis as he returned to the Cards’ lineup.

“The end is in sight,” Kolb said. “We want to make a hard push, and really focus in on details these last five games.”

A myopic view of each week serves the Cardinals well. As defensive tackle Darnell Dockett noted after Sunday’s 19-13 overtime win, the Cardinals have nothing to lose, and it undoubtedly relieves the pressure. Chasing .500, rather than a playoff spot, is a goal that creates smaller tension.

So, even as the Cards’ recent spurt and subsequent fall-off by other NFC contenders have allowed the Cardinals to be listed on the “playoff possibility” graphics shown on NFL Network and ESPN, such a phrase – rightfully so – remains set aside.

“The important thing is we keep our focus like it has been the last five or six games,” coach Ken Whisenhunt said Monday. “I’ve said we know we are not out of it. But we want to make sure that we focus on trying to get better.

“We’re starting to see progress with that. When it’s all done, we’ll look up and see where we are. Right now, I think it’s not something we even want to talk about.”

Getting better, for the 5-7 Cardinals, was apparent Sunday. Defensively, the improvement has been significant. Over the past five games – following a second-half meltdown in Baltimore – the Cards’ defense has allowed just five touchdowns, and only one rushing. Their third-down efficiency allowed in that span is 28 percent, lowering that figure by nearly 10 percent.

Astonishingly, Cards’ opponents have also missed seven field goals in that span as well, three of them being blocked.

“We gave up a touchdown (against Dallas) we shouldn’t have,” defensive tackle Darnell Dockett said. “We are disappointed in that. Guys are still talking about that in the locker room. We are raising our standards.”

Said cornerback Patrick Peterson, “The defense has come a long way.”

Good defense only translates with an offense that can hold up its end. The Cardinals found that out in San Francisco a few games ago – when the defense played well but spent much too long on the field because the offense went nowhere – and it makes this week’s home rematch against the 49ers a proper measuring stick of just how far the Cardinals have advanced.

In San Francisco, John Skelton was still the quarterback. Kolb will be in place this time around, overcoming an ineffective first half against the Cowboys will steadier play and a game-winning touchdown pass in the second half and overtime.

Whisenhunt said he could only hope Kolb builds on the performance, pointing out his throw across the body (dropped by Early Doucet) and particular completions to Larry Fitzgerald and Rob Housler as things the coach liked.

“I think he got a better feel for that game as it went on, and for the speed of the game,” Whisenhunt said. “It was nice for him to make those strides. That will give us confidence going forward.”

Kolb continued his mantra of not having to do too much, “just deliver the ball and plays when they are there.” It’s not a recipe that will boost his numbers anywhere near the Kurt Warner stratosphere, of course, but it would be effective – as long as he avoids turnovers too – with the way the Cards have run the ball with Beanie Wells and the way the defense has performed.

“It’s always been our intention to be a good defense,” Whisenhunt said. “In this league, championships are won with a good defense. If we can get to that level that we appear to be move toward as a defense and get back to the way we’ve played around here as an offense, we’ll be a pretty good football team.”

EXTRA POINTS

Tight end Todd Heap was inactive Sunday because his hamstring was still an issue. “He said (Sunday) he thinks he’s finally turned the corner,” Whisenhunt said. “Playing last week (in St. Louis), when we went back and looked at the tape, he just wasn’t able to cut it loose.” …

Safety Kerry Rhodes still is an unknown when it comes to returning from his foot injury, although he will continue to practice this week, limited at first in all likelihood. …

The Cardinals-Cowboys game will be replayed Wednesday night on the NFL Network at 6 p.m. Arizona time (8 p.m. Eastern).

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