Cardinals safeties Tyrann Mathieu (left) and Deone Bucannon wrap up Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell.
The Cardinals entered a pair of primetime games at the tail end of last season pining for respect.
They had 10 wins and only three losses by mid-December, yet were underdogs in consecutive matchups with the Rams and Seahawks. With the benefit of hindsight, it's hard to argue the skepticism, as injury woes depleted the team so much it had trouble playing to up to its previous level.
As the Cardinals prepare for their first primetime game this season on Monday Night Football against the Ravens, the pulse feels different. They are no longer The Little Engine That Could.
An ESPN power ranking lists the Cards at No. 4 in the NFL despite a 4-2 record, ahead of a pair of undefeated teams. Analytics site Football Outsiders pegs their playoff odds at 90.4 percent and still gives the Cardinals the third-best odds to win the Super Bowl.
The Cardinals enter this nationally televised matchup – shown on ESPN as well as locally on ABC-15 – as favorites for the seventh consecutive game to begin the season. And while everyone expects the Cardinals to be a contender for the long haul, after last week's loss to the Steelers, this game seems pivotal.
A win pushes the Cardinals to 5-2, which would keep them more than a game ahead of everyone in the NFC West and among the conference elite. A loss drops them to 4-3 and into a muddled mess in the NFC while allowing Seattle to inch closer in the division.
"I guess you want to hit your stride at the right time," defensive tackle Calais Campbell said, "but now would be a good time to get into a zone."
At a fundamental level, the Cardinals are a very good football team. They average 6.7 yards per play while their opponent averages 5.3, a disparity which is tied with the Jets for the best in the NFL. Extrapolate that over thousands of simulations, and the results would be very favorable.
However, the Cardinals only have 16 games every season to prove themselves, and twice now – despite moving the ball better than their opponent – games have been derailed by turnovers, penalties and ill-timed mistakes. All four of their wins have come by double digits, and in both losses, the Cards had the ball with a chance to win late but couldn't finish.
"It's either we've whooped them by a lot, or if it's close, we've lost," defensive tackle Frostee Rucker said. "Until we get into a full-blown 60-minute fight and pull one off, that's going to cloud us."
Another tight game is inevitable at some point, but the Cardinals would be happy to stave it off on Monday. The Ravens enter with a 1-5 record, and while all of their losses have come by six points or fewer, that includes the last two to underwhelming foes the Browns and 49ers.
While the Cardinals are kicking themselves over missed opportunities of late, they're still in a much better spot than the opponent coming in.
"Man, what they've got going on, I'd love to have their problems," Ravens wide receiver Steve Smith Sr. said. "We're 1-5. You know what I mean?"
Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer enters the game fourth in the NFL in passing yards and could be in line for another big day. Baltimore is 27th in the NFL in passing defense and has given up 27.0 points per game.
There has been some outside concern about the lack of offensive balance during the two losses, but offensive coordinator Harold Goodwin wants to see the ball moved effectively, however it must be done.
Red zone inefficiency and turnovers have been much bigger problems than the absence of a running game in the losses.
"At the end of the day, as long as we've got more points than they have, so what?" Goodwin said. "If at the end of the year, we're holding that trophy in San Jose, do you really care how much we ran the ball? I don't think none of you (reporters) will. I won't either."
The Cardinals have played the first six games of the season like a dominant team, but the win-loss record doesn't portray it. On Monday night, they'll have a chance to get back on track in the national spotlight.
"We haven't lost our swagger in any sense of the word," coach Bruce Arians said. "We've identified some problems that we (need) corrected. We get in that type of ballgame again, we know how to fix them."
Images of key players for this week's opponent, the Baltimore Ravens