NEW ORLEANS – Much like the fleur-de-lis on their helmet, the Saints are in full bloom.
They made the NFC Championship game in 2018 and are 6-1 this year, even without star quarterback Drew Brees for five of those games.
The 2019 season for the Cardinals always felt like more of the planting stage, where they would water their roots, get some sun and wait to blossom.
However, a rebuilding season has taken an unexpected turn of late, as the Cardinals (3-3-1) have reeled off three consecutive wins to get back to .500 on the season. Quarterback Kyler Murray and coach Kliff Kingsbury have transitioned to the NFL better than expected, and the team has been competitive in all but one of its contests.
The future looks bright regardless, but an upset win here in the Big Easy on Sunday could morph this team into a California Poppy – the type of flower capable of emerging in just a couple of months.
"I just feel like everyone is growing," outside linebacker Chandler Jones said. "Our whole team, they're buying into what the coaches are coaching. We're starting to jell together, and it's not surprising to any of us that we're on a winning streak. This is what we've always believed."
The Cardinals' arrow is pointed up, but the recent momentum will be significantly challenged by the Saints. New Orleans has been without Brees (thumb) for the past five games -- and won them all. He practiced this week and could make his return against the Cardinals.
If not, backup Teddy Bridgewater will again assume the starting duties and aim for another solid outing. Running back Alvin Kamara is also questionable, but the Saints had no issue going on the road last week against the Bears and winning without their two superstars.
"They're a complete team," Kingsbury said. "That's the scariest part. For a few years, it looked like they were building the defense to catch up with the offense. And they've caught up. To lose your best running back and starting quarterback and go on a win streak and dominate defensively, dominate special teams and still play at a high level offensively, it says a lot about their organization and their coaching."
The Cardinals have leaned on an efficient running game to fix the offense, but Murray likely needs to thrive through the air in this game to keep the upset possibility alive.
He hopes to have wide receiver Christian Kirk back in the fold after three games on the sideline due to a high-ankle sprain. Running back David Johnson only played three snaps on Sunday against New York and is also questionable after missing all three practices this week.
Second-year running back Chase Edmonds has been a revelation this season. He rushed for 126 yards and three touchdowns in last week's win over the Giants and is fourth in the NFL with an average of 5.6 yards per carry.
If Johnson cannot play, he is expected to carry the load, with recent additions Alfred Morris and Zach Zenner available to spell him. Edmonds' ascent may be a surprise to outsiders but not to teammates like Murray, who watched him excel behind-the-scenes for months.
"I knew what we had in him when I first got here," Murray said.
The Cardinals' defense looked much better last week with cornerback Patrick Peterson back on the field, but the ‘P2 effect’ will be tested if Brees plays. Even if he cannot go, Bridgewater has posted a passer rating of 98.9 this season and isn't a typical backup.
"Prior to (a knee injury with the Vikings), he was a franchise-type guy, and he still may be one," Kingsbury said. "He's going to get some opportunities after this run he's had."
The Cardinals are beginning a tough five-game stretch that features four games against legitimate Super Bowl aspirants. By the end of it, the Cardinals may well realize they are not yet a true playoff contender.
But an upset win over the Saints – or even a competitive performance – would certainly cultivate the feeling that this team is ahead of schedule.
"It's not just going to be one game that defines us as a team, but I'm excited to get down there," left guard Justin Pugh said. "It's going to be a hostile environment. It's going to be just us against however many it holds – 40-50,000 (people). It's looking like it's going to be a very fun game."
Images from practice at the Dignity Health Arizona Cardinals Training Center