Cardinals linebacker Dwight Freeney (54) and defensive tackle Frostee Rucker celebrate a sack in the blowout win over the Packers.
Perfect seasons and a stab at history don't come along often, so it's easy to figure why the Panthers held the nation's attention heading into last Sunday's game against the Falcons.
But after 14 consecutive wins they fell, and for the first time in several weeks, analysts were willing to look around and anoint a new team as the NFL's best.
Look who they found.
The Cardinals (13-2) might still trail Carolina by a game in the standings with only the regular season finale remaining, but in the court of public opinion, they are tops.
ESPN's power rankings vaulted the Cardinals to No. 1 this week, as did Sports Illustrated's "The Monday Morning Quarterback." Number-crunching websites are just as bullish, with Football Outsiders and FiveThirtyEight pegging Arizona as Super Bowl favorites, while the Vegas oddsmakers moved the Cards up to co-favorites with the Patriots.
Although the Cardinals made an impressive run to the Super Bowl in 2008, that was a Cinderella story. Never before in its Arizona history has this franchise entered the postseason as the team to beat – or in its St. Louis history, for that matter -- but if the Cardinals down the Seahawks on Sunday, there is little doubt the 2015 iteration could be the first.
The team has tunnel vision but nonetheless appreciates the outside recognition.
"Ultimately, there are a number of things that drive players," quarterback Carson Palmer said. "Personally, one of the best things that comes out of a season is opponent's respect. I think everybody in our locker room enjoys that."
From the time they stomped the Bears and 49ers in back-to-back weeks in September, it was clear the Cardinals were very good. But the title of the best was mainly held by the Patriots or the Panthers.
New England and Carolina both lost last week, and only the Chiefs can match the Cardinals' current nine-game winning streak. Beyond the basic win-loss total, the Cardinals have accumulated the type of statistics that predict a successful future.
Their point-differential leads the league at plus-206, which is the equivalent to outscoring opponents by 13.7 points each game. They have defeated six teams by 23 points or more. According to a recent New York Times article, only seven other teams have won six games in a season by three touchdowns or more since 1970, and five of those went on to win the Super Bowl.
The Cardinals enter the final week of the season first in the NFL in points per game (32.2), first in total offense (420.1 yards gained), fifth in points allowed (18.5) and fifth in total defense (319.5 yards allowed). No other team ranks in the top-five in all four categories.
So, are the Cardinals the best?
"Honestly, the only time that question matters is in February, that first Sunday in February," defensive tackle Calais Campbell said. "That's when you get to decide who the best team in the NFL is. Right now, it doesn't really matter. We're out here trying to set ourselves in position to make a run for it. Hopefully at the end of the year we can answer that question properly."
The Seahawks are the two-time defending NFC champions, and the Cardinals beat them, 39-32, in Seattle on Nov. 15. Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson said the rest of the playoff participants will be taking aim at the Panthers and the Cardinals.
"I think (the Cardinals) are a great football team," Wilson said. "Is it the team to beat? All I know is we've got to try to find a way to beat them this week. That's all that matters for us. But I can definitely say they're playing some of the best football, without a doubt, in the NFL."
The Cardinals have defeated the Eagles and Packers by a combined score of 78-25 the past two weeks, putting on display their rare combination of elite offense and defense. There have been some speed bumps this season – the Cardinals lost to inferior opponents St. Louis and Pittsburgh and squeaked out a win in San Francisco – but the personnel on the field has never been overmatched.
They also seem to be peaking at the right time.
"This is the most talented team I've been a part of, and now we're starting to jell," Campbell said, "getting that confidence and playing with a little bit of swagger. That's dangerous."
For a group which was forecasted to finish second or third in its own division, outside expectations have already been surpassed, but coach Bruce Arians' lofty goals have not. Back when he accepted the 2014 Coach of the Year award on the eve of Super Bowl XLIX, Arians predicted his team would play in Super Bowl 50.
If they don't win the title, a regular season full of franchise firsts will go for naught.
"We don't have a ring on our finger," Arians said, "and that's the only expectation we have."
Images of the fans during the Week 16 victory over the Packers at University of Phoenix Stadium