Running back Andre Ellington scores on an 80-yard run last year against the Falcons.
ATLANTA – The Seahawks' engine needed some fine-tuning early on, but as the 49ers found out on Thanksgiving, it's purring now.
Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers told fans to relax after a slow start, and after seven wins in the past eight games, they can currently be found reclining in massage chairs, daydreaming of another Super Bowl run.
The Eagles have weathered an injury to Nick Foles, and whether it's been him or Mark Sanchez at quarterback, the offense continues to show it's one of the most dangerous in the NFL.
Those three teams have the top point-differentials in the NFC and continue to surge toward the top of the conference as the postseason draws near. And yet, even coming off a loss in which they scored only three points, it's the Cardinals (9-2) who still sit in the driver's seat
because of all the wins they racked up to start the year.
If the Cards knock off the 4-7 Falcons at the Georgia Dome on Sunday, they will become the NFC's first team to double digit wins and keep sole possession of the top seed in the conference. While all tiebreakers aren't set in stone, the Cardinals are still in great shape there, as a win would give them, in essence, at least a two-game lead over everyone in the NFC with four to play.
There's no question the other conference contenders are coming on strong, but no matter how well they're all playing, it's the Cardinals who must lose at least two more times in the final five to get caught from behind in the standings.
"We're still in a good situation," defensive end Calais Campbell said. "We're still in control of our own destiny. I know sometimes you can hit the panic button but there's no reason to. That's why those (early) games are so important. We got the ones we needed to so now we don't have to panic. Just regroup and keep moving forward."
Less than an hour after last week's 19-3 loss to the Seahawks became official, players were preaching in the locker room how important it was not to lose two games in a row. In coach Bruce Arians' tenure, the Cardinals have only done so one time, against the 49ers and Seahawks last October which dropped them to 3-4. Since then, the team has won 16 of 20 contests.
While the Falcons have struggled defensively and are three games under .500, they're actually leading the NFC South in an uncharacteristically down year for the division. While most four-win teams would be playing out the string at this point, there is plenty of motivation for Atlanta.
"Coach (Arians) always talks about the great teams he's coached, no matter if it was in college or professional, that the leaders would
never allow a team to lose two games in a row," wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald said. "We have to fight. This is a hungry team. They're leading the division right now and they play very well at home."
Arians said a short memory is the key to bouncing back. Campbell feels like this year's group excels at that, while past teams would sometimes dwell on the negative for too long. After the Cardinals watched the tape on Monday, they recognized the error of their ways against the Seahawks and then moved forward.
"The Seattle game is over with," Arians said. "To me, it was a month ago. It's that far in the rearview mirror already, and you're always ahead coming to work getting ready for what you can control. You don't control that game anymore. You control today."
The Cardinals were in constant catch-up mode in 2013, when a 7-2 record down the stretch still wasn't enough for a playoff spot. That's why this year's 9-1 start was so crucial, as it allowed for enough cushion to absorb last week's loss and still leave the Cards ahead of the pack.
There's no question the margin for error is now thinner, and there is the reality of back-to-back games against Seattle and San Francisco to close out the regular season.
Before those, the Cardinals will play this game at Atlanta, a home matchup with the Chiefs and a Thursday night game in St. Louis. None is easy, but it's likely the Cardinals will be favored to win in each of them.
It can be debated if the Cardinals are the best team in the NFC right now. The Packers' offense is clicking on all cylinders and the same can be said for the Seahawks' defense. But there's no question which team is in the most enviable position as the season hits its stretch run.
"If we don't accomplish our goals, it's our fault," nose tackle Dan Williams said. "We have the same mentality as we did last year because if we start losing games, now we have to watch again, 'Who is going to do what? Who is going to lose here and win there?' We've got to keep it going because another loss here or there and we're right back in the middle of things. We definitely don't want to be in that position."
Images of key players for this week's opponent, the Falcons