Last season, the Arizona Cardinals finished with a 10-6 record after a nailbiting week 17 loss to the San Francisco 49ers. Despite the fact only 9 teams had a better record than them, the structure of the playoffs meant that they were unable to get a place in the playoffs.
Unfortunately for them, the NFC West hasn't gotten any weaker. The Seattle Seahawks are many people's favourite to repeat and win a back to back championship, which would make them the first team to do so since the New England Patriots in 2005.
6 of their match-ups are against divisional rivals, and there isn't a single easy game there. Not only are the Seahawks tough competition; the 49ers managed to beat them twice last year and made it to the NFC Championship game themselves, and the St Louis Rams have a promising team led by a scary pass rushing group who'll be looking to make a name for themselves this year.
Looking at the stats last year the Cardinals didn't acquit themselves terribly. While they were 2-4 in their division they did manage to beat the Seahawks in their own backyard - something that once was (and, for the most part still is) unthinkable.
The schedule doesn't get all that much easier. With games against the Broncos, the Chiefs and the Chargers as well as the Eagles, that's another 4 playoff teams they have to take on. On paper, the Cardinals are going to have a monumental task ahead if they want to be in the playoffs in January.
Let's take a detailed look at their team before we begin to write them off, however.
At quarterback is the veteran Carson Palmer. Many around the league criticise him and claim that he's not a high level starter. Granted, he won't be worrying Peyton Manning or Tom Brady anytime soon.
Last season he passed for over 4000 yards, with a 63.3% completion rate. To put that into perspective, Brady had 100 yards more with a 3% lower completion rate last season.
However, that's where the similarities end. Brady threw 25 touchdowns with 11 interceptions. Palmer threw just one less touchdown. The problem is he threw over 24 interceptions - over double the amount Brady had. The turnovers are the only thing that stopped him from actually going on to have a better year than Brady.
This is key for the Cardinals. They simply have to find a way to get Palmer playing at the level they need him to. His impressive figures show he has the talent - now he has to start playing like a veteran and halve his turnovers. At least.
Second year HB Andre Ellington looks to be the team's primary running back to open the season. If I was a Cardinals fan I'd be shouting his name from the rooftops.
Last season he managed to get over 1000 all purpose yards. As a rookie. Not impressed yet? He also led the league in yards per carry for a RB with over 100 touches of the ball, with 5.5 yards per carry. He can make things happen when he gets the ball. Whether he's pounding it up the middle or catching it out of the backfield, other teams should be wary whenever he's on the ball.
Don't get the impression the Cardinals can only run the ball. They have two top tier WRs in Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd. Larry Fitzgerald needs no introduction - many say that if he hadn't been catching balls from quarterbacks such as John Skelton for so long he could be considered as good as Megatron. After failing to reach 1000 yards two years in a row, this could be a hugely important season for him.
That alone should speak volumes about his calibre - despite having 10 TDs and 954 yards last season, it's widely seen as a dissapointing year for him.
His partner in crime Michael Floyd has no such concerns. He exploded in his second year, raking up over 1000 yards and 5 TDs. Coming into his third year the hype around him has risen massively, and he could be in for a pro-bowl calibre year.
The Arizona Cardinals offensive line makes interesting viewing. The left side seems promising with Jared Veldheer and first round pick last year Jonathan Cooper. The right side, however, is debatable. There are a handful of players competing for a starting spot, and only time will tell if they can hold strong.
The Cardinals play a 3-4 system on defence, with Calais Campbell as the obvious standout player. With a career high 9 sacks last year he'll be looking to take the league by storm once more. Don't rule out his teammates though; Darnell Dockett and Dan Williams are, at worst, solid contributors to the team.
The linebacking unit is more of a mixed bag. There's no doubting John Abraham's production over the years - the problem is the rest. Pro Football Focus have both Matt Shaughnessy and Larry Foote ranked as below average starters - looking at their stats, it's hard to argue why. Shaughnessy managed just 3 sacks and 31 tackles last year. Foote was only able to play 1 game before going on IR for the season in 2013. While he did have 113 combined tackles in 2012, he's now 34 and it's hard to imagine him getting back to the way he was.
However, age is not something the Cardinals secondary have to worry about. Patrick Peterson is viewed as one of the best cornerbacks in the league - impressive when you remember he's only had 3 seasons so far. Antonio Cromartie is likely to be the man who joins him at cornerback. He might be past the stage where he can get 10 interceptions a season but there's no doubting he still has the talent to be a good starter for the team.
The secondary also can look forward to the return of Tyrann Matthieu (or the honey badger as he's popularly known.) As a rookie last year he started in 11 games before getting injured, managing to rack up 9 passes defended with 2 interceptions and 65 tackles. With those stats it's not hard to see why he's such a popular figure around the league, and fans are hoping for even more once he's healthy this year. While that may not be for week 1 against the San Diego Chargers, he's sure to make an impact whenever he returns.
Overall verdict: Yes. The Cardinals can win the Superbowl - and they have a good shot at doing so. Their biggest test will be whether they can make the playoffs or not, as the majority of people have the Seahawks and the 49ers locked in for the playoffs at number 1 and 2 in the division. There's no reason why the Cardinals can't challenge them for those spots. Even if they're unable to do so, 3rd place and a wildcard birth is well within their reach. If they can get into the playoffs, don't count on them going out without a fight.
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