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NFL morning after: The Cardinals are for real

Larry Fitzgerald, Jaquiski Tartt

Larry Fitzgerald, Jaquiski Tartt


It’s a little hard to remember now, given their ugly performance in the playoffs, but there was a time last season when the Cardinals looked like the best team in the NFL. Maybe they were. And maybe they are.

The Cardinals improved to 3-0 with a dominant win over the 49ers yesterday, and they look like real Super Bowl contenders. They’re the best team in the NFC right now.

They were the best team in the NFC last year, too, until Carson Palmer got hurt. They were 6-0 last year in games started by Palmer, and they were still a very good team even when second-stringer Drew Stanton went down: At the time they lost Stanton for the season, they were 11-3. It was only when the disaster that was third-string quarterback Ryan Lindley was forced upon the Cardinals that they lost their last two regular-season games and got blown out in the playoffs.

If they’d had Palmer healthy for all of last season, the Cardinals might very well have been in the Super Bowl, and if Palmer stays healthy for all of this season, they could be headed there again.

It’s really incredible how well the 35-year-old Palmer and the 32-year-old Larry Fitzgerald are playing in the Cardinals’ passing game. Yesterday Palmer completed 20 of 32 passes for 311 yards, while Fitzgerald had nine catches for 134 yards and two touchdowns. These old guys have found the fountain of youth.

But it goes well beyond Palmer and Fitzgerald. The Cardinals have three running backs who can make big plays with the ball in their hands in Chris Johnson, David Johnson and Andre Ellington. Michael Floyd, Jaron Brown and John Brown give the Cardinals one of the deepest receiver groups in the NFL. Darren Fells and Jermaine Gresham are a good pair of tight ends. Arizona’s defense was outstanding yesterday against Colin Kaepernick & Co.

And, of course, the Cardinals have Bruce Arians, who is simply a great head coach. Arians only has three seasons of experience as an NFL head coach and he’s already won the Coach of the Year award twice. He could make it three times in four seasons if the Cardinals keep playing the way they’ve been playing.

At 3-0 in a division where everyone else is 1-2, the Cardinals already have a nice cushion in the NFC West. They’ll stay on top in that division all year, just as long as Palmer is healthy.

Here are my other thoughts from Sunday in the NFL:

The NFL needs to improve its Sunday schedule. Yesterday the league gave us 10 kickoffs at 1 p.m. Eastern, and only three kickoffs at 4 p.m. That didn’t work out well at all. There was so much good football going on in the early window that it was impossible for anyone to follow all the games. And all three of the late games were blowouts, meaning that by the third quarter, fans had nothing interesting to watch. The league should never have 10 early games and three late games. Football should be spread out across the day. I’m looking forward to next weekend, when we get our first early-morning London kickoff of the season, followed by a more reasonable afternoon spread of seven early kickoffs and four late kickoffs. That’s the way it should be.

Darren Sproles shows no sign of slowing down. At 32, an age when most running backs are put out to pasture, Sproles just keeps going strong. Sproles had both a rushing touchdown and a punt return touchdown in Sunday’s win over the Jets, the second time in his career that he’s done that. Sproles and Gale Sayers are the only players since the 1920s with multiple games of both a punt return touchdown and a rushing touchdown. With 27 receiving touchdowns, 18 rushing touchdowns and six punt return touchdowns in his career, Sproles is the only player in NFL history with at least 25 receiving touchdowns, 15 rushing touchdowns and five punt return touchdowns.

A bad team will win the AFC South. I know that because there’s nothing but bad teams in the AFC South, where all four teams are 1-2. The Colts are the reigning champions, entered the season as the favorites and will likely end up on top of the division again this year, but let’s be honest: Indianapolis is not a good football team. Andrew Luck has regressed this year, the rest of the offense isn’t helping him out, and the defense is a mess. Colts coach Chuck Pagano is widely believed to be in jeopardy of losing his job at the end of the year, but General Manager Ryan Grigson should be in trouble, too. Since drafting Luck, Grigson has done nothing to build a good team around him. The Colts may be a playoff team, but that’s because they’re in a bad division, not because they’re a good team.

Appreciate Charles Woodson while he’s still here. Woodson, who had a game-clinching interception for the Raiders on Sunday in Cleveland, is the oldest player in the NFL other than quarterbacks, kickers and punters. Woodson, at age 38, is the oldest player to intercept a pass in an NFL game since 41-year-old Darrell Green intercepted one in 2001. Woodson can’t last forever, so while we can, let’s appreciate one of the greatest players in the history of the game.

It’s time for Johnny Football. Browns coach Mike Pettine is adamant that Josh McCown is his starter. Pettine should reconsider. Johnny Manziel has played well enough this season that the Browns should take a longer look at him, if for no other reason than to see what they have. The Browns aren’t going anywhere with McCown. They should let Manziel try to get them going.

Lose DeMarco Murray, get better. It’s hard to believe you can lose the reigning Offensive Player of the Year and watch your offense get better, but that’s exactly what happened, both in Dallas and in Philadelphia. The Cowboys’ offense has been just fine this year without Murray (their defense was another story in yesterday’s loss to the Falcons), and the Eagles’ offense turned in its best effort of the season yesterday while Murray sat out with an injured hamstring. In today’s NFL offenses, running backs are so interchangeable that even the NFL’s leading rusher can leave a team without his team missing him.

The Patriots love to run up the score. New England hung 51 points on Jacksonville yesterday, and coach Bill Belichick left Tom Brady in the game, throwing passes, deep into the fourth quarter. It’s odd that Belichick is willing to risk an injury to Brady like that, but that’s the way Belichick has done it for years: Since 2007, the Patriots have scored more than 50 points in a game eight times, by far the most of any team in the league. The Patriots look like the best team in the NFL right now. But they’d have a tough game against the Cardinals.