Cardinals Flip Script on Giants
On this night, it was the Arizona Cardinals beating the New York Giants at the latter's own game, forcing four turnovers and out-muscling Big Blue 24-17 on national TV in the swamps of Jersey.
"We definitely fed off our defense tonight," Arizona quarterback Kurt Warner said.
Teams that go to the Super Bowl don't generally fly under the radar, but these particular defending NFC champion Cardinals seem to have done just that in 2009. They lost two of their first three games, dumping a division game to San Francisco in their opener and getting throttled by the apparently invincible Colts in Week 3. Arizona coach Ken Whisenhunt said last week he felt his team struggled in the early part of the season with their own expectations -- that his players felt too much pressure to live up to the title of NFC champs.
But since the Week 4 bye, things have gone extremely well for Arizona. The Cardinals have won three in a row, the last two on the road, each win more impressive than the one that preceded it. This one Sunday night against the Giants moved the Cardinals back into first place by themselves in the NFC West and stamped them as a legitimate threat to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl for a second year in a row.
"When something bad happens to us," Warner said, "we respond."
Most impressive, though, is the fact that they seem to be better now at the areas in which they were deficient last year. Sure, they still live to throw the ball. They are a pass-first team, and they dare you to try to outscore them. But with star receiver Anquan Boldin banged up and an angry Giants defense staring them down across the line, Arizona knew it would need to be multi-dimensional to win this game.
Enter the defense, anchored by linebacker Karlos Dansby and aggressive, opportunistic safeties Adrian Wilson and Antrel Rolle. They intercepted Eli Manning three times, sacked him three times and hassled him all night, forcing delay-of-game penalties and keeping the Giants' offense from ever getting on track.
"We have to give credit to them," Manning said. "We had too many third-and-longs and not enough positive plays. Too many three-and-outs."
Music to the ears of a Cardinals defense that's used to playing in the shadows of a high-flying offense -- and doesn't feel it should have to.
"Everybody wants to talk about how much we score, how much we pass, but we really feel like we have one of the best defenses in the league," Boldin said. "They're aggressive and they make plays when the plays are there for them to make."
Last week in Seattle, the Cardinals put the Seahawks to sleep with a variety of pressure packages that overwhelmed a shredded offensive line. This week, the Giants' offensive line was slightly undermanned (right tackle Kareem McKenzie was injured and did not play, breaking New York's NFL-record streak of 38 consecutive games with the same offensive line and quarterback starting together), but there was no way the Giants could lay the blame on that. Rookie right tackle Will Beatty wasn't the only lineman who got beaten by a swarming Cardinal defense that seemed to show up in the backfield on every play.
"Oh no, no, they brought people from all over," Giants coach Tom Coughlin said. "They are a pressure defense. I'm not exactly sure who was at fault or if there was anyone who was at fault. There was pressure all night."
On the other side of the ball, Arizona showcased a new weapon. Rookie running back Beanie Wells ran for 67 yards on 14 carries -- 10 more carries than starter Tim Hightower got. Wells used a vicious stiff-arm to aid his first career touchdown run in the second quarter (and liked it so much he kept using it, with varying degrees of success, for the rest of the night). His totals weren't eye-popping, but for a rookie coming off the bench for a team that called 36 passes and 22 runs, they were significant, and bear watching going forward.
"Beanie did a great job of running downhill, getting some yards after contact, keeping the pile moving," Warner said of Wells. "I think we've seen that since day one, what he can do with the ball in his hands."
He's another weapon, and they've got a ton of them. Larry Fitzgerald (six catches, 83 yards) still plays for Arizona, lest anyone forget. And Boldin picked up 75 yards on a bad ankle. All the characters you remember from the team that led the Super Bowl in the final minutes are still around. But the Cardinals just came into Giants Stadium and won a football game with their defense and a running back.
If you're looking for contenders in the NFC as the halfway point approaches, that makes it worth remembering the team that's actually defending the title.