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Underdog Cardinals Ready Again

After a year of underestimation, crucial game against Seahawks follows script

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Wide receivers John Brown (12) and Michael Floyd celebrate a home touchdown earlier this season.

Knock Larry Fitzgerald over with a feather.

The Cardinals have the best record in the NFC by a full game. They're one win away from clinching the top seed in the conference. They'll get that chance at University of Phoenix Stadium on Sunday night, a place where they are 7-0 this year and 13-2 since Bruce Arians took over as coach.

And they're more than a touchdown underdog against the Seahawks.

"I don't think we're surprising anybody with that," Fitzgerald said. "When's the last time we were favored this season? Can't even remember, huh? We've always been the underdog."

It's been the story of 2014: The Cardinals (11-3) are underestimated, and then they surpass expectations. Before the season began, the team was projected to finish in third place in the NFC West and under .500. Even as the wins piled up, a combination of close victories

and key injuries left their bandwagon with plenty of room.

Arians made pointed remarks following last Thursday night's 12-6 win over the Rams, questioning why his team would be doubted against a club already out of the playoff race. As this marquee, nationally televised showdown approaches, the national perception hasn't changed, and the Cardinals are hoping the result doesn't, either.

"That's been a story all year, but after this one, you can't deny it anymore," left tackle Jared Veldheer said. "This is the chance to go out and take that respect. If you win this game, you take it. There's no question about earning it."

There is logic behind anointing the Seahawks as the favorite. Seattle is the defending Super Bowl champion and, after a slow start, has won four in a row to move back among the NFC's best. It is ranked No. 1 in the NFL in both total defense and rushing.

The Cardinals have won two in a row themselves, but by a combined nine points, and they're starting third-string quarterback Ryan Lindley, who hasn't thrown a touchdown in 181 career pass attempts. Even with Carson Palmer or Drew Stanton at quarterback, it took second-half rallies for the Cardinals to secure five of their seven home wins. Critics use that as evidence of a lucky streak. Arians looks past the statistics and to his team's resolve.

"There are certain teams I've been on in the past that were destined to win," Arians said. "This team bonded very early and cared about each other, were accountable to each other. You would hope we could finish this off in a major way."

While Arians' message to Lindley early in the week was to "go sling it, baby," the Cardinals know they must run the ball effectively against a stout Seahawks front. In their two losses to Seattle under Arians, the Cardinals have averaged 2.5 yards-per-carry on 38 combined attempts. In last year's road win, they had 43 rushes for 139 yards.

That upset victory also was the result of a mammoth defensive effort, one which will almost certainly need to be repeated to keep the

pressure off Lindley. Quarterback Russell Wilson and running back Marshawn Lynch are the engines that drive the Seahawks, but they'll be missing two starting offensive linemen – left tackle Russell Okung and center Max Unger – and don't have much of a passing game, so it's expected to be a defensive slugfest.

"We know how great Seattle's defense is and how great they've been playing in the past four, five weeks," safety Rashad Johnson said. "They've been really putting it together. So we know we've got to come out and give it our best shot. I have extreme confidence in our guys."

The Cardinals won in Seattle last year despite entering as double-digit underdogs, and many have pointed to it as the jumping off point for this year's sustained momentum. Despite injuries and suspensions to key players, the team has swatted away adversity like a bothersome fly, continuing its path to the top of the conference.

The Cardinals are one win away from the NFC West title, a goal they implemented this offseason, and with it would come home field advantage throughout the postseason.

Few are giving them a chance behind a third-string quarterback, but if the Cardinals surrendered to conventional thinking, they would have never been in this position in the first place.

"Obviously we have problems at quarterback, but we believe in (Lindley), and we believe in ourselves," linebacker Kevin Minter said. "We went to training camp with injuries. We left training camp with even more. Throughout the season stuff's happened, but you've just got to keep fighting. We're obviously the underdogs because they're the Super Bowl champs and they've got pretty much everybody back from last year, but we feel like we can do it. It's just the attitude we have. We work hard, we execute well in practice, and as you can see with our record it follows to the game. So why not this one?"



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