Cardinals must prove they can finish

Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

The Arizona Cardinals brought a ball-control offense to San Francisco for the regular-season opener at Candlestick Park two months ago.

They ditched it after two quarters.

They purged its final remnants last week by benching Edgerrin James, the ultimate ball-control back, for rookie Tim Hightower, whose 30-yard touchdown run against the St. Louis Rams offered validation.

"You look at the first game and you look at them now, they are a different football team," interim 49ers coach Mike Singletary told reporters recently.

Singletary spoke of more than the Cardinals' offense, which leads the league in scoring.

These Cardinals are different simply by being relevant at midseason inside and outside the NFC West. Their 5-3 record marks a franchise best at midseason since 1984, when the team called St. Louis home.

The current Cardinals have beaten the Miami Dolphins, Buffalo Bills and Dallas Cowboys at home. They've beaten the 49ers and Rams on the road, matching their 2007 total for road victories. They came close to a breakthrough victory on the East Coast before falling, 27-23, to the Carolina Panthers.

A victory over the 49ers on "Monday Night Football" might give Arizona a four-game lead in the division with seven games remaining. First, we look at what's making the Cardinals so good -- followed by a look at two hurdles that could block their path in the end:

What makes these Cardinals good

1. Warner has found a balance.

The book on Kurt Warner was easy reading. He was a big-play quarterback -- for both teams.

Thirty-five quarterbacks attempted at least 200 passes last season. Per attempt, Warner ranked sixth in most touchdowns and ninth in most interceptions. He also lost six fumbles.

Only two of those 35 qualifying quarterbacks -- Jon Kitna of the Detroit Lions and Eli Manning of the New York Giants -- suffered more turnovers than Warner last season.

That might help explain why the Cardinals handed nothing to Warner in 2008. Yes, they wanted to give 2006 first-round choice Matt Leinart every chance to win the job in camp. But withholding the job from Warner until the last moment also helped convince the two-time MVP to guard the football more closely.

Warner threw one interception for every 26.5 attempts last season. He's throwing one every 49.3 attempts in 2008.

And while Warner has always been prone to the occasional meltdown game, he has never suffered four or more turnovers in a game twice in a season. The Cardinals can take comfort in knowing that one such game passed for Warner during a 56-35 defeat to the New York Jets in Week 4.

Warner had six turnovers that day. He's committed four in the other seven games. That's a winning formula.

2. Aggressive coaching moves set winning tone.

One team with a winning record has gone for it on fourth-and-1 or fourth-and-2 at least five times this season.

The Cardinals are that team.

Coach Ken Whisenhunt calls for fake field goals and unexpected onside kicks. He sent cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie on a deep pass route as a receiver. He had receiver Jerheme Urban throw a critical pass during a road game against the Washington Redskins. Whisenhunt even convinced ownership to let the team spend a week on the East Coast in preparation for a road game.

The calculated gambles don't always pay off, but Whisenhunt's aggressiveness means the Cardinals are playing to win. That's the mentality this franchise has needed.

Whisenhunt also appears unafraid to make roster moves with long-term ramifications. He played Warner over Leinart. He benched James for Hightower. Rodgers-Cromartie could replace Eric Green against the 49ers.

3. Boldin's professionalism set a standard.

Anquan Boldin could have pouted or withdrawn after failing to win a new contract during a contentious offseason dispute. Boldin, arguably the most respected player in the Cardinals' locker room, made his displeasure clear as the regular season approached. He even vowed to sign with another team once his contract expires.

Boldin has been all business since the season started. The Cardinals couldn't find a better mentor for their young receivers. They owe Boldin at least some of the credit for Steve Breaston's quick development. Boldin has even set a standard for Larry Fitzgerald, who has shown a renewed attention to detail as a route-runner.

Boldin's professionalism also set an example for other players seeking new contracts or more playing time, from James to Karlos Dansby to Adrian Wilson.

Boldin fought his way back into the lineup without even taking painkillers after doctors inserted seven plates and 40 screws into his face following a horrific collision with Jets safety Eric Smith.

That type of commitment makes it easier for others to sacrifice personal feelings for team goals.

Two hurdles that could block the Cardinals' path

1. An injury to Warner.

Warner is averaging 42.4 pass attempts per game over his last five starts. He remains unafraid to take punishment if it means making a big pass play down the field.

That's admirable, but also dangerous. The bye in Week 7 allowed Warner to rest his chronically sore throwing hand. He won't get another bye week unless the Cardinals secure one of the top two seeds in the NFC.

That's one reason the Cardinals would like to get their running game going with Hightower.

Warner hasn't started 16 games in a season since 2001. He has started more than 11 games in a season twice. He's as good as ever at age 37, but there's no need to risk unnecessary punishment.

2. Undisciplined play.

Whisenhunt made penalty reduction a top priority this season. It hasn't worked.

Officials assessed 7.5 penalties per game against Arizona last season, the second-highest rate in the league. The figure is 7.75 per game in 2008, behind only the Cowboys (7.9).

Right guard Deuce Lutui leads NFC West players with seven penalties (assessed plus declined). Warner has six for delay of game. Breaston has had trouble lining up properly at times.

The defense remains prone to allowing big plays at inopportune times, another area where undisciplined play tends to play a role.

The Cardinals allowed a 65-yard touchdown pass late in the third quarter against Carolina and a 70-yarder in the final three minutes against Dallas. A personal-foul penalty against the Washington Redskins brought back a 68-yard pass midway through the fourth quarter of a 24-17 Cardinals defeat at FedEx Field.

Arizona must learn to finish -- in games and in this potential breakthrough season.