Tyrann Mathieu (32) and Tony Jefferson (22) congratulate Antonio Cromartie (31) after an interception against the Eagles.
ARLINGTON, Texas – High expectations do not frighten Bruce Arians because to him nothing is unrealistic.
When the Cardinals closed out last Sunday's thrilling 24-20 victory over the Eagles, the excitement was palpable in the Valley and the attention poured in nationally. It grew when the Cowboys subsequently lost on Monday Night Football, leaving the Cardinals alone atop the NFC at 6-1 nearly midway through the season.
This team is arguably the NFL's most pleasant surprise, a non-playoff team from a year ago which has weathered significant injuries to become a legitimate Super Bowl contender.
To Arians, it's no shock. When the Cardinals coach spoke of becoming the first host team to win the Super Bowl this offseason, it
wasn't empty noise to rally the troops during mundane offseason workouts. He's always believed it, which is why there's no reason to adjust expectations as the wins pile up.
"We set one goal, and that's to put a ring on our finger, and that's it," Arians said. "Don't let anybody dress in your locker room come February. That's the only goal we set. Then we went to work daily."
While the Cardinals may be pegged as a scrappy underdog, their success has now spanned the equivalent of a full season. They are 13-3 in their past 16 games, tied for the best mark in the NFL.
If the players didn't all buy in from the start, there's no doubting the belief now. Quarterback Carson Palmer said it began following the season-opening win over the Chargers and has snowballed from there.
"There's definitely a swagger about us," he said. "I think we're a confident group. I don't think we're overconfident, I think we're realistic."
The schedule the rest of the way will test the Cardinals, starting on Sunday against Dallas. The Cowboys are 6-2 on the season and can reclaim the top spot in the NFC with a win, although they could be without starting quarterback Tony Romo, who hasn't practiced this week after suffering a back injury against the Redskins.
If he is unable to go, it will be backup Brandon Weeden, who has 20 career starts but has thrown more interceptions (26) than touchdowns (24). The quarterbacks have similar styles, which makes it easier for the Cardinals defense to prepare.
"They're not going to change," Arians said. "It's not like they're all of a sudden going to go to the read-option. It's going to be the
The biggest challenge defensively will be stopping the NFL's leading rusher, DeMarco Murray, who has set an NFL record by topping 100 yards in eight straight games to start the season.
The Cardinals haven't allowed a 100-yard rusher in more than a year -- since Frank Gore ran for 101 on Oct. 13, 2013 --and are third in the league in rush defense, but will have their hands full against Murray and an excellent offensive line.
"They'll pretty much tell you where they're going and dare you to stop it," linebacker Kevin Minter said.
On offense, the Cardinals will look for improvement but will still focus on taking care of the ball. They are second in the NFL in turnover differential at plus-9, which is one reason why they've overcome average team statistics to post such an impressive win-loss record.
"They don't beat themselves, they take care of the football, they go get the ball, and they just do a really nice job in that regard," said Cowboys coach Jason Garrett, whose team is minus-2 in turnover differential. "Obviously, that's something that we emphasize every week. We understand the correlation between ball security and the turnover ratio and success, and we have to make sure we do a better job of that."
While the Cardinals have a wide sense of belief in their ability, Palmer said it's important not to go overboard. There are plenty of examples of teams who started fast and then fizzled out.
"Just go down the line," Palmer said. "There are a lot of vets that have been on good teams and ended up out of the playoffs, or had hot starts and finished terribly, or been good and just never really got to that great mark. There's enough experience in the locker room that we'll hold each other accountable and take it one week at a time.
"It's hard to get better as the season goes on. Very few teams do it. We were one of the few teams who did it last year. We're going to try to do it again this year."
The Cardinals have excelled against conference opponents outside the NFC West under Arians, winning nine of 11 games, including a 3-0 mark this year. Each of those wins has come against the NFC East, and they will aim for the sweep against the Cowboys.
For much of the season, the focus has been on the NFC West, home of last year's NFC champion and its runner-up. But for now, the Cardinals have a two-game lead on both the Seahawks and the 49ers, and the move to the top of the NFC affords a wider view. The goal is still to claim the NFC West, but on that trek, why not remain the NFC's best?
"Once you get a hold of it, somebody's trying to take it out of your pocket," Arians said of the conference lead. "It's like your lunch money when you went to school. Somebody's always had their hand in your pocket trying to get your lunch money and you can't let them have it, no matter what it takes."
WILLIAMS ADDED TO ROSTER
The Cardinals promoted running back Kerwynn Williams to the active roster Saturday, with Stepfan Taylor out with a calf injury. Defensive tackle Bruce Gaston was released.