Victory puts Cardinals in prime position

October, 12, 2008
10/12/08
11:30
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Week 6 generally isn't the time for sweeping proclamations, but it's time to state the obvious.

The Arizona Cardinals will reach 10 victories and host a playoff game this season.

Their 30-24 overtime victory against the Dallas Cowboys revealed Arizona as nearly indestructible at home, a reliable indicator for every team but the road-tested New York Giants.

"What a great environment in the stadium today," coach Ken Whisenhunt said. "Fans were fantastic. This was what a playoff game feels like. Just a good total team win for us, which is nice to see.

"And I guess we're pretty good at home, too."

That last part was what this game was about for Arizona: establishing itself as a team that protects its home turf even when the other team has more talent and the breaks aren't going its way.

The Cardinals have knocked off Buffalo and Dallas at University of Phoenix Stadium in consecutive weeks. It's tough to find a likely home defeat on the Cardinals' schedule beyond a Nov. 23 home date with the Giants.

Eleven teams won at least 10 games last season. Seven went 7-1 and one was 8-0 at home. The three exceptions -- Indianapolis, Jacksonville and Tennessee -- beat up on one another in the rugged AFC South.

The Cardinals are 4-2 overall and 3-0 at home. Their opening-game victory at San Francisco bought them early insurance. Four of their remaining games come against division rivals with a combined record of 4-12. Losing back-to-back games against the Washington Redskins and New York Jets doesn't look as bad as it did at the time.

"We talked about going on the East Coast trips and obviously it didn't go well for us from the win-lost record, but I think it made us a mentally stronger team and I think that showed up today," Whisenhunt said.

Ten other things we learned from the Cardinals' victory:

1. Darnell Dockett can be unstoppable.

That stat sheet doesn't begin to do the defensive lineman justice. Dockett, named to the Pro Bowl as an injury replacement last season, officially finished with three tackles, one sack and three quarterback hits.

An officiating mistake and a bad break wiped out two forced fumbles that might have spared the Cardinals from a harrowing finish.

Officials erred in calling Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo down before Dockett forced a fumble deep in Dallas territory. Later, it took a successful replay challenge from the Cowboys to turn another potential fumble-forcing sack and Cardinals touchdown into an incomplete pass.

"All week, every time we stepped in the meeting room our coach was telling us they're big, they're big, they're going to hold you, they're going to try to maul you," Dockett said. "I was just so ready to just say, 'Forget this. Let's go play. I'm tired of you keep telling me they're going to be big. I see it on film. I see Leonard Davis at 6-foot-7 and 379 pounds. I mean, I see the offense. Stop talking about it.'

"And I got down, man, I was just like, you know what, I don't care how big you are, you in for a rumble today. We did just that."

 
  Chris Morrison/US Presswire
 Arizona wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald goes up for a touchdown catch over Cowboys cornerback Adam Jones in the third quarter. The Cardinals won the game in overtime 30-24.

2. Larry Fitzgerald was the best receiver on the field.

The Cardinals' receiver is Terrell Owens with reliable hands.

Virtually nothing could have prevented Fitzgerald from catching a pivotal 39-yard jump ball to start the fourth quarter.

The Cowboys pressured Kurt Warner. They hit him hard on the play. Warner threw the ball up for grabs. Cowboys cornerback Anthony Henry was there. Fitzgerald made the play appear routine. For him, it was.

"You get hit on the play, but I knew I could just get it up there enough to give him a chance and he made a great play," Warner said. "You never want to take it for granted, but I think we do because he's so talented."

3. Containing Owens wasn't so tough.

Owens finished with only four catches for 36 yards even though the Cardinals played single coverage more than most opponents and more than anyone might have anticipated.

Arizona's ability to get pressure made life easier for cornerbacks Rod Hood and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. Hood crowded Owens from the beginning, with a safety on alert to help downfield. Rodgers-Cromartie took over after cramps forced Hood from the game.

As close as Hood played Owens, the two might be closer off the field. They played together for the Philadelphia Eagles and speak on the phone every other week.

"T.O., that's my boy," Hood said. "I'm real close to him and he's real close to my family, man.

"It seemed like when they don't get him the ball early it sometimes frustrates him, but he was still competing out there and trying to make plays."

4. Arizona has room for improvement.

Whisenhunt made penalties Public Enemy No. 1 during the offseason. His team committed more than any other last season, and Whisenhunt knew Arizona might not improve upon its 8-8 record without addressing its shortcomings in that area.

Officials assessed a dozen penalties against each team Sunday.

The Cardinals' offense committed four penalties on the first plays of drives. The offense committed two more on third downs.

5. Officiating remains a problem in the NFL.

The blown call on Dockett's fumble-forcing sack might have become the story had the Cardinals lost this game.

Referee Peter Morelli and crew needed a replay reversal to fix the other play involving Dockett. The reversal, though warranted, shined light on the confusing and controversial tuck rule.

The NFL loses when officiating decisions threaten to influence outcomes while defying logic.

The tuck rule is another example of rules removing judgment from the game. Everyone could see that Romo was trying to tuck away the football when Dockett knocked it loose
. That type of play will always look like a fumble to people who don't memorize the rule book for a living.

The Cowboys used the reversal to sustain a touchdown drive, tying the score at 7-7 with 59 seconds remaining in the first half. Owens threw a block on Patrick Crayton's 55-yard touchdown reception, but officiating was the lead story to that point in the game.

6. Cowboys fans travel.

Whisenhunt had encouraged Cardinals fans to resist selling their tickets to Cowboys fans. Thousands apparently ignored his pleas. An estimated 15 to 25 percent of fans appeared to be wearing Cowboys jerseys. They were loud enough to affect the Cardinals' offense in a couple of key situations.

7. Steve Breaston is stepping up big.

The Arizona receiver has 24 receptions for 301 yards over his last three games. He's giving the Cardinals a needed boost while Anquan Boldin recovers from injuries suffered during a frightening collision in Week 4.

Breaston's eight receptions for 102 yards against the Cowboys were hugely important to the outcome.

One caveat: Breaston's inability to line up correctly on a consistent basis might prove costly at some point this season. Officials flagged him for another illegal-formation penalty.

8. Arizona knows how to start -- and finish.

The Cardinals scored on the first and last plays of the game.

J.J. Arrington's 93-yard kickoff return allowed the Cardinals to exhale and play more freely. Sean Morey's blocked punt in overtime set up Monty Beisel's 3-yard touchdown return.

9. The NFC West race isn't a race at all.

The Seattle Seahawks lost again to join the St. Louis Rams at 1-4. The San Francisco 49ers gave up 23 fourth-quarter points in falling to 2-4, with a road game against the Giants in Week 7.

The bye week allows the Cardinals to get healthy and enjoy their first 4-2 start since 1988. They own a two-game lead in the division for the first time since moving to Arizona.

10. None of it matters if Kurt Warner gets hurt.

Warner's willingness to hold the ball and take punishment allows the Cardinals to strike downfield. The 39-yarder to Fitzgerald was a worthy example.

But how many more hits before Warner takes one too many?

That's one question Arizona doesn't want answered.

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