Running back Robert Hughes and the Cardinals are going for a fifth straight win Sunday against the Rams.
The Rams had every right to throw in the towel three weeks ago.
They'd been besieged by injuries, lost four of their first five games and had a hellacious six-game stretch on deck, beginning with defending Super Bowl champion Seattle.
Instead, they became that energetic kid brother who challenges older family members to a game of pickup hoops in the driveway – they may not have had as much talent, but the hustle never stopped, and eventually it resulted in some wins.
"We just keep battling," said coach Jeff Fisher of the NFL's youngest team. "Just keep fighting. You have to adjust like we do on a weekly basis. The 49ers had a bye week and had four days off with no one on the injury report. We had 13 on the injury report, couldn't even practice on Wednesday (and then won on Sunday). I just think that speaks volumes about them, the energy and the youth that we have on this team."
St. Louis did the Cardinals a big favor by recently knocking off Seattle and San Francisco, which has helped stretch Arizona's NFC West lead to two games. Both times the Rams were underdogs, and both times they used some late-game magic – a fake punt against the Seahawks and a fumble recovery at the goal-line against the 49ers – to pull the upsets.
"These guys play a very tough, physical brand of football and that travels," wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald said.
"No matter on the road, at home, these guys can play with anybody when you line up with them."
The Rams would love nothing more than to pull the divisional trifecta by knocking off the Cardinals at University of Phoenix Stadium on Sunday, and the lead-up is following a familiar script.
The Cardinals have the NFL's best record at 7-1 and have captured 10 of 12 home games under coach Bruce Arians. However, the Rams have bucked conventional thinking in two of their last three games and have the internal belief they can do it again.
"A team that's confident is hard to take down," linebacker Alex Okafor said. "I think that shows with us. We're a confident team and we've been successful with that. We see this as a game where they're picking up steam and this is their shot. If they beat us, they're now looked at as they're on fire, that they're the hottest team in the league. We're taking them seriously."
If the Cardinals beat the Rams, it will be the organization's first five-game winning streak since 1977. Last week's win over the Cowboys was encouraging, as the defense played well against the run and the pass while the offense put up 28 points.
However, quarterback Carson Palmer thought there were too many stretches of inconsistency, and the Cardinals feel like they've yet to put together a picturesque performance. Each of their eight wins has come by 11 points or fewer, and an easy blowout
victory would be nice.
"I keep hearing about this roll we're on," Palmer said. "I don't think we've hit it yet. It's nice to win a bunch of games in a row, but we would really like to pick up some steam on offense and have a handful of those games where you just explode and really catch that roll and then you're firing on all cylinders. We've done a good job. We've been fortunate to win games, but we still have a lot of things we can get better at and we will get better at."
Coach Bruce Arians finds the silver lining in that. The Cardinals are far from tapping out their potential yet have still found ways to win. If everything comes together– like an improved pass rush and running game – the Cardinals should match up well with everyone on their schedule the rest of the way.
"That's the nice sign – especially offensively – that we're not anywhere near where we need to be," Arians said.
After the recent wins over the Eagles and Cowboys, there's a new-found acceptance of the Cardinals as one of the better teams in the NFL. Little has changed on a daily basis at the facility, but the players don't live in a vacuum. They see their faces more on TV, read their names more on social media.
For the first time since 1966, the franchise has sole possession of the best record in the NFL this late in the year.
"We've never really been in this position before," safety Tyrann Mathieu said.
Fitzgerald said it's a role the team must embrace. Even though he played a huge part in the Cardinals' Super Bowl run of 2009, that team had a Cinderella story. To him this is "uncharted territory." It's also a spot the Cardinals don't want to relinquish.
"Every single week from here on out we're going to have a bulls-eye on our back," Fitzgerald said. "There's a big difference between being the hunter and being hunted. You have to have a much higher sense of urgency and focus to be able to deal with the pressure that comes with it."
Images of key players from this week's opponent, the Rams