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The Wild (And Wide-Open) West

Cards prepare for their post-bye stretch in a cramped division

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Larry Fitzgerald hugs fellow receiver Steve Breaston after Breaston's touchdown reception last season during the Cards' win in Seattle.




The Cardinals took the weekend off. The rest of the NFC West didn't.

Unfortunately.

"I was hoping they would all lose," wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald said after the Cards returned to practice Monday a half-game closer to everyone in the division following the 3-0 mark the other West rivals posted Sunday. "But it makes it more interesting."

The Seahawks (3-2) beat the Bears in Chicago. The Rams (3-3) upset the Chargers in St. Louis. And the 49ers earned their first victory of the season in six games by beat the Raiders at home. The Cards (3-2) were hoping others could create a little breathing room during their bye, but instead will head to Seattle Sunday in a crucial early-season division game.

"It's not what you want on your off week, but those teams played well," Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt said. "Maybe our division isn't as bad as some people think it is."

This season is heading toward a much different ending for the division than any of the other years since Whisenhunt arrived. In 2007, the Seahawks controlled the outcome much of the season and clinched early. In 2008, the Cards raced out to a 7-3 record and coasted to a division title despite struggling down the stretch. Last season, the Cards built a big enough lead that being swept by the 49ers – the second-place team – never really made them sweat.

With the majority of the season left, it's no lock that any of the current three-win teams won't falter (or even that the 1-5 49ers won't get hot and fly past their brethren). But this may finally be the year with a bitter battle until the end.

"It might actually come down to a competition for the first time since I have been here," defensive end Calais Campbell said. "Last year we lost to San Fran head to head, but we had the division won anyway pretty easy so it didn't matter. This year, all the head-to-head matchups will mean more.

"If you need to win, it gives a little more motivation … it's a little like the playoffs. I like competition. But it'd be nice if it was easier. I'll take it on a silver platter if I can get it that way."

The platter probably isn't coming. So the fact the Cards will get healthier this week – wide receiver Steve Breaston said there was "no doubt" in his mind he will return from his knee injury, while there is a chance wide receiver Early Doucet (sports hernia) and linebacker Gerald Hayes (back) could also play – can only help against the Seahawks.

Dissecting the NFC West didn't interest Whisenhunt Monday, not with so much time left. The Seahawks are the only team he cares about at the moment, and that's because his team sees them this weekend.

It's clear, however, that the NFC has a wide-open feel to it this year and no division tangibly shows that more than the NFC West.

"It really doesn't matter to me," Fitzgerald said. "I am always up for stiff competition. That's why we work so hard, to prepare for those moments."

The Cards still have five division games left: Besides Sunday in Seattle, they host Seattle Nov. 14, host San Francisco Nov. 29, host the Rams Dec. 5 and then go to San Francisco Jan. 2.

Before the season, many thought the division could be decided during that Bay Area visit in the early days of 2011. It still could. But there could be other teams involved.

"My mindset is if we take care of our own business, we'll be where we need to be," Campbell said. "I do think after this weekend you have to respect our division more. A lot of people don't respect our division at all."

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