Coach Bruce Arians and the Cardinals run off the sideline in triumph after Thursday night's 12-6 win in St. Louis.
In the back of his mind, coach Bruce Arians had to know there were more eyeballs than usual on his press conference following Thursday night's 12-6 win over the Rams.
The Cardinals don't get the spotlight too much, but with no other games on the docket, he had a captive audience. Before any questions were asked, Arians praised his group and wondered aloud why no one gave it a chance to win against a sub-.500 opponent.
"Right now we're the No. 1 team in the National Football League," Arians reiterated Friday. "You should get some respect with that."
The Cardinals will almost assuredly clinch a playoff berth from the comfort of their couch Sunday night, and with two weeks left, remain
the only team in the NFC which can secure the top seed without help from others.
So why is it the Cardinals aren't getting much respect? It seems to be a three-pronged answer.
Cornerback Patrick Peterson points to the historical aspect, as the franchise had a number of down years upon their arrival to Arizona in 1988. While the team has been competitive since moving to University of Phoenix Stadium in 2006 – including a Super Bowl run in 2008 – a long-standing label is hard to shake.
"We get that (doubt) each and every week because we are the 'Arizona Cardinals,'" said Peterson, making air quotes with his fingers.
Then there is the way in which the Cardinals have won. Eleven victories, 10 of which by 11 points or fewer and none wrapped up before the fourth quarter.
Meanwhile, each of the three losses has come by double digits, leaving the Cardinals with a relatively minimal plus-43 point differential despite the large win-loss gap. The Chiefs, Texans and Bills, for example, have better point-differentials and all are 7-6 heading into Sunday's action.
In general, winning close games at a consistently high clip is hard to do. Some teams do it well one year and then suffer a sharp dropoff the next with similar personnel. Arians believes there is a skill to it, and he's a good person to make that argument.
Arians is 18-3 in one-possession games as a head coach, going 8-0 as an interim coach with the Colts in 2012, 5-3 last year and 5-0 thus
far in 2014.
"It's a belief," Arians said. "It's a belief you're going to get it done, and the only way to get that belief is to do it. We're fortunate enough to have all those games we won in the fourth quarter in September, and now it's kind of old hat to us if, 'Hey, this game is close. We're going to find a way to win it.'"
Even if coaching is given its due, the easiest way to dismiss the Cardinals is the injuries. Backup quarterback Drew Stanton hurt his right knee against St. Louis, and while initial concerns about a possible ACL tear were abated, he is still out indefinitely and is unlikely to play next Sunday against the Seahawks.
Starting quarterback Carson Palmer is already done for the season, as is running back Andre Ellington, defensive tackle Darnell Dockett, linebacker John Abraham, punter Dave Zastudil and tight end Troy Niklas.
Despite all that, the Cardinals became the first team in the NFL to 11 wins by beating the Rams. Many have been loudly predicting the team's collapse for weeks, and yet it hasn't happened.
Peterson called it a statement victory. Defensive tackle Tommy Kelly said the Cardinals have drawn closer through the scrutiny.
"We're just a band of brothers," Kelly said. "When everybody's picking you to lose against a team you've already beat this year, that's kind of like a slap in the face. Everybody wanted to do their jobs to a 'T' and leave it all on the field. That's what we did."
There's really no endgame to this. If the Cardinals lose in the first round of the playoffs, the pundits will nod their head knowingly. If they go deeper, it will be chalked up to random variance. Maybe the Cardinals will continue the dream season. Maybe injuries will finally catch up to them.
In the NFL, though, the outside voices don't matter. There is no selection committee to determine the postseason participants, so there is nothing beyond the Cardinals' control.
"We're the No. 1 team in the NFL and NFC and we don't get nearly as much respect as we (deserve)," Peterson said. "But that doesn't matter to us. We just want to keep going out there, playing football and winning games. Get into the playoffs and the rest is history."
Images from the Thursday Night Football game between the Cardinals and Rams