ATLANTA – In the past 15 months, quarterbacks Aaron Rodgers, Matthew Stafford and Matt Ryan have each held the title of the NFL's highest-paid player.
The Cardinals saw the first two Richie Riches in Weeks 13 and 14. They will round out the trifecta when they face the Falcons on Sunday.
It's no secret why they make so much money. The franchise signal-callers can rip the ball to any area of the field and make even the most talented defenses look average.
That's why the Cardinals' last two games have been so impressive. In an era when aerial attacks are becoming close to unstoppable, the Cardinals pulled the emergency brake on Rodgers and Stafford.
In Green Bay, Rodgers averaged 4.66 yards per attempt – the fifth-lowest of his career – as the Cardinals pulled out a 20-17 shocker. The Cardinals' passing game was stuck in mud itself on Sunday, which is why the Lions won 17-3, but Stafford had similar issues, barely topping 100 yards passing and averaging a career-low 4.39 yards per attempt.
Now it's on to Ryan, who, despite the team's 4-9 record, is having the second-best season of his career, behind only his MVP campaign in 2016.
"We know we're a pretty good defense," cornerback Patrick Peterson said. "We know we're a pretty good secondary. It's just all about being consistent. For the most part, when we do the things we're supposed to do and coached to do – when everybody is doing their job – that's when we're successful. When we're not communicating and when everyone is not on the same page, that's when stuff can get a little dicey. Honestly, if we're all on the same page and all on one accord, we can have another great game against another great quarterback."
Falcons coach Dan Quinn has seen the Cardinals' defense jell as the season has gone on. Blown coverages have become increasingly rare as the players have found comfort in coach Steve Wilks' system.
"You can imagine how that communication improves," Quinn said. "Defensively, they've got some players in some really key areas that I think make up a good defense. It's Chandler (Jones) outside; it's Pat outside. It's the way the safeties are playing. The way Budda (Baker) plays at nickel. … That kind of defense, and that kind of toughness, you've seen it over the last few weeks."
It has not been wholly rosy for the pass defense – Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers set a league record by completing 25 straight passes against it in November – but the unit is ranked No. 4 in the NFL in net yards allowed per attempt at 5.9.
The statistic is useful because it also factors in in sacks. The Cardinals' run defense has been inconsistent this season but the pass rush and the coverage have worked well together.
"It's all 11 men's jobs to affect (the pass defense)," defensive coordinator Al Holcomb said.
The Cardinals (3-10) have struggled to win games this season because their own passing attack has been among the worst in the NFL. For 2019 to be markedly better, that must improve.
Meanwhile, the defensive backs will try to keep this up. Ryan has one of the best receivers in the NFL in Julio Jones and two fine complementary pieces in Mohamed Sanu and Calvin Ridley. The challenge is on again.
"Every offense is going to have one or two dynamic players," safety Antoine Bethea said. "Those games are big. When we as a secondary and your defense stands up to those challenges, it speaks a lot. It creates character on that side of the ball."
Images of key players for this week's opponent, the Atlanta Falcons