TEMPE, Ariz. -- It’s one thing for the Arizona Cardinals to want to get to the top. It’s another for them to be on their way.
In the eyes of Arizona Cardinals general manager Steve Keim, his team spent 2013 closing the gap between themselves and the San Francisco 49ers and the Seattle Seahawks. A 10-6 season that finished with a 7-2 run and a bull rush toward the postseason still left Arizona sitting third in the division, but the Cardinals are as close as they have been since the recent resurgence of the Niners and the Seahawks.
Just how close are the Cardinals?
They have to consider the fact that their division is home to the now-defending world champion Seahawks, and both NFC Championship Game finalists.
“Moving forward, I felt like, on each side of the ball, we were at least two to three players away from being an upper-echelon team,” Keim said during his NFL combine news conference Thursday in Indianapolis.
“I think it's a great litmus test to play those teams (Seattle, San Francisco and St. Louis) in those divisions, because it helps expose where your limitations are, where you feel like you need to improve,” he added.
More often than not against the West, the Cards were exposed. Through the first two days of the combine, Keim and head coach Bruce Arians have talked about their needs for next season. Keim said two or three players on each side of the ball. On offense that could mean a left tackle and a tight end. On defense, that is a safety geared to stopping tight ends, another cornerback, and a back up defensive tackle.
It took Arians just one season to make the offseasons in the West a chess match. Whatever one team does, the others will counter -- even St. Louis.
Based on how 2013 went, however, Arizona knows it needs to stock up in a few areas to compete for a division crown, namely on the offensive line. Keeping quarterback Carson Palmer protected, especially against the defenses the Cardinals face six times a year, can be the difference between 10 wins and 12, or even 13.
“You have to be on your A-game at all times,” Keim said. “All three teams that we're facing are very, very good defensively. You have to keep pace. It leaves very little room for error, not only in the draft but in free agency as well. You have to be physical on the offensive and defensive lines.
“You've got to have really good depth.”
After facing each team once last year, Arians began to adjust. He kept nose tackle Alameda Ta'amu around for depth behind Dan Williams, which kept the defensive line fresh down the stretch. And Arians began to trim the playbook, which helped the offense finally click.
If Keim needed a measuring stick last season to see how far the Cardinals had come -- or how far they have to go -- it came in Seattle in Week 16.
The Seahawks hadn’t lost at CenturyLink Field all season until Arizona’s defense stonewalled running back Marshawn Lynch and cramped quarterback Russell Wilson to his breaking point on Dec. 22 in a 17-10 win. It was the last time Seattle lost last season.
“Obviously, going to Seattle and beating them up there showed signs that we were headed in the right direction,” Keim said.
Said Arians: “The division we’re in is a great division. You’re battle-tested when you come out of it. The second half of the season, we competed very well in the division.
“If we were in the playoffs, we would have done some damage. We just didn't win enough games.”