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Sunday, December 14, 2008
No doubt, Cardinals deserve your skepticism

By Mike Sando
ESPN.com

 
 Chris Morrison/US Presswire
 Quarterback Kurt Warner and the rest of the Cardinals came out flat in a 35-14 home loss to the Vikings.

Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Appearing content with their recently won NFC West title, the Arizona Cardinals invited all manner of ridicule about their playoff worthiness during a 35-14 home defeat to the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday.

The playoff seeding they potentially squandered will not matter much if they lose in the first round.

Given that the Cardinals won't be facing another NFC West team in the playoffs, their postseason shelf life appears unlikely to extend past one week. Arizona is 5-0 against division opponents and 3-6 against varsity teams this season.

"There are no excuses," coach Ken Whisenhunt said. "We are a good football team. We won our division. We know we are going to the playoffs. But we have to play better over these next two games in order to get prepared for that."

The Vikings had more at stake in this Week 15 game and it showed. The New England Patriots, still fighting for their AFC East lives, will have more at stake when the Cardinals visit Gillette Stadium in Week 16.

Winning the NFC West with three games to spare has put the Cardinals at additional risk. The team hasn't had much practice handling success. It's tough to pretend the stakes are high when the other team has much more to lose.

"Today we didn't approach that game like we had something to win and something to reach for, and it showed on the field," Cardinals linebacker Karlos Dansby said. "We played lackadaisical today, then in the second half we came out swinging like we had something to fight for. We showed spurts, but we can't start that flat ever again."

The Cardinals are not a particularly mature team. They have continued to rank among the most penalized teams in the league. They have not consistently risen to the level of their opposition. They do not finish plays or games consistently. And they are one-dimensional on offense to a fault.

They are also division champions for the first time in 33 years, which makes this season a success no matter what happens next.

"The thing we have to understand is this is a growing process," Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner said. "We're not a great football team and we have to get better to be one of those teams that can go in and dominate teams week in and week out. It's a process."

Ten more observations focusing mostly on the Cardinals:

1. The Warner dilemma is tough to resolve.

Warner occasionally has pointed out the difficulties associated with a one-dimensional offense. He also stands as the primary reason Arizona has no meaningful ground game.

The Cardinals came out running in their season-opening victory at San Francisco. Warner didn't appear comfortable until the coaching staff opened up the offense in the second half.

Though at their best offensively with Warner throwing the ball frequently, the Cardinals will struggle to become an effective running team without committing to the run. And without more balance, the Cardinals will struggle to beat teams in the playoffs, even at home.

In other words: Without Warner, the Cardinals wouldn't be NFC West champions. Without more balance, the Cardinals are unlikely to take the next step.

2. The MVP race is wide open.

A strong performance in victory would have strengthened Warner's standing among MVP candidates.

But with Warner struggling against constant pressure and the Vikings' Adrian Peterson rushing for 165 yards, the MVP race could come down to the final two weeks.

Warner needs a strong statistical performance against the Patriots -- and a victory -- to reassert himself.

3. Teams should not draft for need over talent.

The Cardinals passed on Peterson in the first round of the 2007 draft largely because they had a greater need at offensive tackle.

The team had also invested millions in Edgerrin James as its featured runner.

And so the Cardinals selected tackle Levi Brown over Peterson with the fifth overall choice.

Which player would the Cardinals rather have now? The one they should have taken then.

Brown is an average tackle still finding his way. The one-dimensional nature of the Cardinals' offense exposed him -- and the rest of the Arizona line -- against the Vikings.

Defensive end Brian Robison beat Brown for a sack and forced fumble on one third-down play in the first half. Officials also flagged Brown for holding.

Peterson proved again that he is an MVP-caliber talent, arguably the best player in the league.

5. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie is the real deal.

The Cardinals' rookie cornerback is making big plays almost every week. He blocked a field-goal try against the Vikings, leading to a touchdown return.

Rodgers-Cromartie arguably was the difference for Arizona during a 26-20 victory at Seattle, picking off two passes, including one to seal the outcome. Last week, Rodgers-Cromartie returned an interception 99 yards for a touchdown.

While Rodgers-Cromartie missed a couple of tackles Sunday -- he was not alone on that front -- he wasn't in coverage on any of the Vikings' big pass plays.

6. The Cardinals might not win 10 games.

I marked down Arizona for 10 victories this season after the Cardinals defeated the Buffalo Bills and Dallas Cowboys at home in consecutive weeks.

Arizona appeared likely to win no fewer than seven games at home. I failed to account for how the Cardinals might respond to winning the division title with games to spare.

They were horrible Sunday.

"The one thing I'm most disappointed about is that we did it at home and that is not something we have done before," Whisenhunt said. "Obviously we are going to make sure we look at this and do a better job."

7. Peterson inspires awe.

Cardinals safety Adrian Wilson struggled finding words adequately describing Peterson'
s talents.

"I can't say enough good things about him, just by the way that he played, the demeanor that he plays with," Wilson said. "He is arguably the best player in the league."

The straight-talking Wilson isn't one for hyperbole. Respect resonated in his words.

Has he played against a better back?

"Next question," Wilson said. "He is all-world. There ain't nothing else you could possibly say. If my son decided to play offense, I'd tell him to look at Adrian Peterson tape."

8. Anquan Boldin hasn't been himself.

The Cardinals' Pro Bowl receiver has shown courage and toughness since suffering serious facial injuries during a Week 3 game against the New York Jets.

He has also suffered through two rough performances in his last three games.

Boldin dropped two passes and lost a fumble during a 48-20 defeat to the Philadelphia Eagles in Week 13. Against Minnesota, he dropped a third-down pass to kill the Cardinals' first drive. He lost a fumble to kill their third drive.

The Cardinals can't win without their best players playing at a high level.

9. Childress, Whisenhunt like a challenge.

Whisenhunt and Vikings coach Brad Childress each used their allotment of two instant-replay challenges.

By my count, that hadn't happened in a game since the New York Giants and Jacksonville Jaguars played in Week 11 of the 2006 season.

The referee for that game -- Ron Winter -- was the referee for this one.

Winter entered Week 15 leading NFL referees in booth-initiated challenges. He also led the league in penalties assessed per game.

The Cardinals weren't happy about the penalties Winter waved off Sunday.

One penalty, for pass interference, would have given the Cardinals a 49-yard gain shortly after Arizona had struck with a quick touchdown to open the second half.

Later, Winter's crew waved off a penalty after initially ruling that the Vikings' Ben Leber had violated rules by striking receiver Steve Breaston in the head.

10. Practice does not make perfect.

Dansby and defensive tackle Darnell Dockett used the word "lackadaisical" in describing the Cardinals' effort.

The adjective seemed appropriate.

Whisenhunt said he didn't see it coming in practice. Wilson wasn't so sure.

"We came out flat, mistakes, it all goes back to practice," Wilson said. "If you don't practice well during the week, you can't think you are going to turn the switch on Sunday. That is not going to happen. We had an OK practice and really we had a terrible game."