Quarterback Carson Palmer, shown here celebrating after a John Brown touchdown against the Bengals, is a big reason why the Cardinals should remain contenders down the stretch.
SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- Everyone who gets on a thrill ride has that irritating internal clock in the back of their head.
The sharp turns and breakneck speeds are exhilarating, and after such a long wait in line, the goal is to enjoy every second. But rides are finite, and at some point the subconscious arises, alerting a rider that the end could be behind the next blind corner.
That mixture of excitement and trepidation may have encapsulated a Cardinals fan's experience in 2014. Through 10 games last year, the team was 9-1 – one game better than this year's juggernaut at the same point – and alone in front of the NFC pack. It was a great start, but the Cardinals had yet to play Seattle and were relying on backup quarterback Drew Stanton after Carson Palmer's season-ending knee injury.
A couple weeks later, Stanton also went down and the Cardinals turned to Ryan Lindley. The magical first 10 games faded quickly -- replaced by memories of five losses in the final seven, including the wild card defeat in Carolina.
This is not brought up as a warning for the 2015 Cardinals but in fact the opposite. For the vast majority of NFL teams – even those that start as hot as the 2014 iteration of the Cardinals – there are plenty of reasons to expect their demise as the NFL season hits its stretch run.
Many have glaring weaknesses or talent deficiencies. Others are dealt key injuries. But then there are those chosen few with legitimate Super Bowl aspirations.
Even with one fewer win through 10 games, this year's Cardinals team has a considerably better outlook than it did in 2014. A healthy quarterback situation, in particular, has coach Bruce Arians feeling like a kid before closing time at the amusement park, because with no lines any more, there's no telling when the ride will end.
"We have Carson and Drew," Arians said. "The rest of the guys are about the same, but those two make a big difference. So, yeah, I like this team a whole lot better than that one that went into December last year."
As the Cardinals prepare to take on the 49ers in Week 12, the offense is leading the NFL in points (33.6) and total yards (417.3) per game while Palmer has the best rating (108.6) among all quarterbacks. The defense is third in yards allowed per contest, and while game-changing plays have been lacking in recent weeks, the capability is there.
The Cardinals have also done it without being lucky. They have lost a pair of close games – last year's hot start was fueled by a perfect record in narrow margins -- and are even in the turnover battle. The big knock after the first half of the season was an easy schedule, and the Cardinals have answered that by beating the Seahawks and Bengals in consecutive weeks.
As well as it's gone, the players think there is plenty of room for improvement.
"It's crazy, because we haven't put a whole game together but we're still winning," linebacker Kevin Minter said. "It speaks to the talent in this room."
The Cardinals were good last year but maybe not great. The team was 5-0 in complete games from Palmer, but the offense only averaged 23.6 points per contest in that stretch. The defense was very good early but wore down late in the season.
This year's squad seems deeper and more talented on both sides of the ball. Palmer is playing at an MVP level, the running game is better and the addition of guard Mike Iupati has given the offensive line another Pro Bowler. The defense has a healthy Patrick Peterson and Tyrann Mathieu. Both were average last season while battling physical issues, so it's been the equivalent of infusing two all-pro defensive backs into the mix.
With the way they have been playing, Palmer feels like the Cardinals have gone from taking aim at the top teams to being the one with a target on its back.
"We've been on the other side," Palmer said. "We snuck up on a lot of teams (last year). You would definitely prefer to have everybody gunning for you."
The Cardinals have yet to win a playoff game under Arians, so even as they enter a rematch with San Francisco after drubbing them 47-7 in Week 3, the players shrug off any talk of complacency.
It's a nice spot to be in, knowing the horses are there to compete but still feeling like there is something to prove.
"It's like anything else," defensive tackle Calais Campbell said. "When you know you have a chance to win a race, you dig deep and start pushing. You do things you didn't even know you could do sometimes. But we still have a long way to go; 8-2 doesn't get you anywhere. There's no trophy for that. The only thing it can guarantee is you won't have a losing record. But it doesn't even guarantee you'll have a winning record.
"The upside is nice. We do have that potential. But potential doesn't mean anything if you don't go out there and achieve it."
Images of key players from this week's opponent, the San Francisco 49ers