Cornerback Michael Adams and the Cardinals seem to be primed to handle their early clinching -- and a run in the playoffs -- better this season.
The Cardinals have won the NFC West for a second straight season, and everything has changed.
Maybe everything changed long before the Cards wrapped up their playoff spot last week, with still two games to go in the regular season. The team enters Sunday's home game against the Rams knowing they have already qualified for the playoffs but also knowing, once there, they can be a factor.
That wasn't there a season ago. And that affects how the team approaches these last two games.
"We are confident now," safety Adrian Wilson said. "And we want to keep improving.
"Last year, (clinching) was new to a lot of people. To at least 80 percent of the locker room it was new to them. This year is different. We believe we can continue to win games. We have things we need to improve on, and we're not looking at these last two games as something where we can just show up."
Coach Ken Whisenhunt remembered when he asked the locker room last year who had been on a team that had clinched a playoff spot and "less than 10 hands were put up." That team didn't seem to handle its clinching of the division well at all.
The current version of the Cards understands that. This version actually may turn out to be last year's mirror image, a squad that felt the weight of an NFC championship and Super Bowl berth early yet has been freed by the return trip to the postseason.
"Trying to live up to that and the expectations (was tough)," Whisenhunt said. "How we didn't handle that way and how we came out of that … I think there is definitely a little bit of a burden lifted once we clinched."
Whisenhunt has a few mile markers to indicate his team's improvement from last season: An excellent road record (6-2), an ability to avoid back-to-back losses; the ability to consistently run the ball.
Finding motivation beyond the Cards' own situation will be difficult against reeling St. Louis. While the Rams did give the Texans a tussle last week but are still only 1-13 and most likely will be starting third-string quarterback Keith Null.
First-year coach Steve Spagnuolo has done a good job holding his team together despite the season-long skid, and insisted his team will be prepared for the Cards.
"In this league, and I have learned it this way, whether you have won five in a row or lost five in a row or 12 or 10, whether you win or lose, by the time Wednesday morning rolls around, we are all trying to do the same thing in this league," Spagnuolo said. "We're all trying to win a football game and it's the next football game. I know it sounds like a cliché and I know I'm talking like a coach and all that, but it's true."
The same goes for the Cards, who are trying to win 10 games in a season for the first time since 1976. Achieving the NFC's No. 2 seed – and a first-round bye – is a long shot, although as Whisenhunt stressed earlier this week, the Cards can't be hurt if they win.
So the starters will likely play most if not all of the game barring a blowout. And the Cardinals most likely won't have to worry about skidding to the finish line like they did last year after clinching the NFC West.
"We still have a lot to play for," quarterback Kurt Warner said. "We still have a lot we want to accomplish, so you don't start thinking about that stuff. You just start thinking about playing and continuing to win and getting on a roll. That's what we're thinking about."
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