Adrian Wilson and the Cardinals know they have a good shot at the NFC West title despite their 3-5 record at this point in the season.
Before the season – before every season – coach Ken Whisenhunt holds a meeting on the eve of training camp, going over all the details of the season to come for his players.
Part of the meeting is a discussion of goals. And the main goal is not to win the Super Bowl, or even win the NFC.
The goal is to win the NFC West.
You can argue the merits of a division win this season, with the level of play at this point less than stellar. The Cardinals need to play better. That's without argument. They will need to find ways to upgrade in certain positions in the offseason. Also without argument.
The question is, while sorting such issues, can they reach their original goal? They have eight games to find that out.
Halfway through the season, the Cards' hopes seem to rest in two areas: Efficiency with quarterback play and consistency on defense. There are other spots to watch, but if the Cards can solve the larger problems, the smaller ones should diminish in importance.
Now that it looks like Derek Anderson will remain the starter at quarterback, coach Ken Whisenhunt had to be encouraged by his play in Minnesota. He didn't turn the ball over (although he was close to throwing an interception early) and showed good decision-making when he tossed the ball out of the end zone when receivers were covered prior to the team's last field goal.
"It was a lot smarter than what we have done in the past," coach Ken Whisenhunt said. "Is that progress? I hope so."
Anderson isn't Kurt Warner. He isn't nor was he ever going to helm an offense that generated 30 points a game. But the Cards need more production on offense – wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald made that point after the Vikings game – and have benefitted from an astounding eight return touchdowns already this season.
The Cardinals are ranked 31st in the NFL in offense. But Whisenhunt sees a quarterback who, since coming in to relieve Max Hall against Tampa Bay, has completed 31 of 50 passes for 413 yards, two touchdowns, two interceptions (and one was more like a fumble by LaRod Stephens-Howling) and a passing rating of 84.8.
Not Warner. But not the Anderson of earlier in the year either. Again, the Cards must score more often. They have to find a way to goose the running game to greater production, although, as Whisenhunt noted, teams are going to make that hard and force Anderson to beat them. And the Cards are going to have to find a way to make it happen.
"We are a talented enough team that we should be able to go out there and make plays," wide receiver Steve Breaston said. "I don't see any difference from prior years."
The defensive issues have been a much bigger mystery. The unit embraced the idea they could be the backbone of this team, but it hasn't been enough. During the Cards' current three-game losing streak, the defense probably would have held up for wins with the "old" Warner-led offense, clamping down on the Seahawks in the red zone, being able to play without the specter of two Tampa pick-sixes, and likely benefitting from a late first down the current Cards' offense was unable to get in Minnesota.
Yet if the Cards had been able to, say, stone the Buccaneers right after the Cards' offense had provided a fourth-quarter lead, late interceptions could have been rendered moot. And regardless of late offensive problems, it is difficult to shake the idea a 14-point fourth-quarter lead in Minnesota wasn't sufficient.
"We just can't finish games off," safety Adrian Wilson said. "That's not being on the same page if you can't get that together, if you can't make that happen."
Like Anderson getting back his receivers healthy, the Cards hope having Gerald Hayes back in the linebacker mix – and eventually getting Clark Haggans back – will allow the defense to finally jell as expected.
But there are no promises here.
There is no magic delineation between halves of the season. Just because the Cards have exactly half a season to go doesn't mean their problems will suddenly be solved. It doesn't mean an incredibly inviting second-half schedule (five home games, five games against teams currently with two wins or fewer) will end up working in the Cards' favor, although it should.
Things will change after these eight games, with the roster and maybe with the league (the labor issues and end of the collective bargaining agreement loom). But if the Cardinals can find a way to top the division for a third straight season – after all their change and turmoil up until this point – there will be a certain satisfaction.
And a home playoff game.
Opponents are averaging 3.3 false start penalties per game this season at University of Phoenix Stadium, the highest average in the NFL (Chicago's Soldier Field is next at 3.0).
The Cards are averaging 29.7 points per game at home this season and 13.6 points per game on the road.
Starting nose tackle Bryan Robinson will play in his 200th NFL game Sunday against Seattle.
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