The Cardinals' defense lines up for their goalline stand against the Seahawks last weekend.
When the Cardinals' defense took the field on Sunday, it wasn't just trying to slow down the Seattle offense. It was looking to make a statement.
The Seahawks have the top-ranked defense in the NFL, allowing the fewest points in the league at 14.7. The Cardinals have been right there with them much of the season, and even though the two units never played simultaneously, it was still a game of one-upmanship.
Seattle linebacker Malcolm Smith intercepted a pass and returned it to the Arizona 3-yard line near the end of the first half, but the Cardinals didn't let the Seahawks score. The Seahawks totaled four interceptions, while the Cardinals held Marshawn Lynch to 11 second-half rushing yards. Back and forth they went trading punches, with the Cardinals ultimately prevailing, 17-10, in the slugfest.
"We wanted to be the best defense on the field that day," linebacker Karlos Dansby said. "We were going against their defense. That's how we felt."
The NFC West has made a resounding case as the best division in football, and its foundation is the monster defensive
performances like these that show up frequently.
The Seahawks, 49ers and Cardinals are all in the top seven in points allowed per game. The Cardinals have the best run defense in the NFL while Seattle has the best pass defense. The 49ers are top five in both. The Rams are third in the NFL in sacks, and all four teams are in the top six in takeaways. The Cardinals, 49ers and Rams are tied for third in defensive touchdowns.
By any measure, a matchup against these defenses has been the equivalent of coal in the stocking for the opposition. And with the six intra-division matchups per season, each of these four teams sees it plenty.
"When you're playing a game like we did Sunday, with what their side of the ball was doing, you want to go out there (and match it)," defensive end Frostee Rucker said. "They hit the quarterback, and we had to make sure we hit the quarterback. They get a sack, so we make sure we get two. If they don't score, we're good, you know? And they're thinking the same thing."
Seattle and San Francisco are regularly mentioned among the stingiest defenses in the NFL, while the Cardinals have joined them with their recent standout play. And now, after the performance in Seattle, it's fair to ask if the Cardinals have the best unit amongst them.
The Cardinals allowed an average of 27.3 points per game in their first three under the new coaching regime, but have allowed only 17.4 points per contest since. The rush defense continues to improve, and the ability to stop the run increases the chances to force turnovers and create big plays as quarterbacks are forced to throw more.
Coach Bruce Arians coached with the Steelers from 2004-11 and saw his fair share of impressive Pittsburgh defenses, but he doesn't hesitate in putting this Cardinals group up against the best of those.
"I would put us above all those defenses, because the number of takeaways," Arians said. "We can stop the run. Those teams were really good, but they didn't create the number of turnovers that this team is creating and closing out ballgames. They're fantastic."
The strides have been easy to see in division games. In the first matchup against the Rams this season, the Cardinals gave up 27 points in a loss. The second time around they allowed 10 points in an easy win. The Seahawks scored 34 the first time around in their victory before last week's 10-point output.
The 49ers are the last opponent of the 2013 regular season. They scored 32 points in the first matchup as Frank Gore topped 100 yards – the only running back to hit the century mark against Arizona this season.
If the Cardinals can continue the trend of shutting down their NFC West brethren in the second meeting, they'll do their part in reaching 11 wins and keeping a playoff possibility alive.
It's a big challenge against an elite running team with multiple weapons. The players, though, have believed in themselves from early on, and each week's success breeds more confidence.
"We definitely feel like we're the best defense in the league," Dansby said. "And we're playing like it."