Cards prove they're not ready for showtime
by Mike Celizic, NBCSports.com contributor
If the Cardinals want us to believe that they’re finally a team to be taken seriously, they’re going to have to do better than they did Monday night against San Francisco. They had the attention of NFL Nation all to themselves, and all they proved is that come the playoffs, nobody’s going to be shaking in their cleats at the prospect of facing them.
Let’s start with the positives: Arizona won the game.
That’s pretty much it. And if it were the Giants or the Patriots or the Titans or any of eight or 10 other teams, we’d say that’s all that matters. We’d go on to say they found a way to win, just as the NFL’s elite teams usually do when faced with a fired-up opponent looking to salvage something from a lost season.
And if an elite team loses on a Sunday night or Monday night showcase game, you cut it a break, as we did for the Giants earlier this year when they got waxed by Cleveland. It goes down as just one of those nights when the big guys were a little flat and the perennial underdogs played the game of their lives.
But the Cardinals don’t get those kinds of breaks. They’re not an elite team that plays so frequently in the national spotlight it gets to be old hat. The Cards, in fact, almost never get to play on a national stage. They’re not good enough, and almost never have been.
So when they do get the attention of NFL Nation all to themselves, you expect them to come out firing on all cylinders to prove that they are worthy of the spotlight. You expect them to be prepared, to be crisp in their execution, to be focused and motivated and determined to shut all of their critics up.
And the Cardinals didn’t do that. Oh, they won the game against the pitiful 49ers and their scrap-heap quarterback, Shaun Hill. But to say they won is stretching the definition of the word. While Kurt Warner had another great stat night, the Cardinals came out on the long end of the score only because the 49ers, when faced with victory, had no idea what to do. So, they threw the game away.
It wasn’t easy for them to lose, either. The 49ers had to turn the ball over three times — twice on interceptions and once on a fumble — to finally find a way to allow the Cardinals to take a five-point, fourth-quarter lead. And then they had to totally blow a first-and-goal inside the three at the end of the game to finish the job.
In this case, every win isn’t equal. Like perennial losers everywhere, the Cardinals have to do more than beat a two-win team on Monday night to make believers of us. I don’t care that they’re 6-3 with a four-game lead in the NFC West, the worst division in football. They’ve beaten one established good team, Dallas, and it’s not certain how good the Cowboys actually are. Other than that, they’ve beaten the 49ers twice, the Dolphins, the Bills and the Rams. Of their six wins, only two — their first game against San Francisco and their win over the Rams — have come on the road. In their other road games, they’ve lost to the Jets, the Redskins and the Panthers.
Given that no one else in the NFC West has more than two wins, the Cardinals could probably make the playoffs with a 7-9 record. So let’s not make too much — come to think of it, let’s not make anything at all — of winning the division.
And before we go celebrating a Cardinal renaissance, let’s see this most star-crossed of franchises beat a couple of elite teams. The Giants at home next week would be a good place to start. And if not them, then the Eagles in Philadelphia the following week. But failing to beat either of those teams, forget it.
There’s good reason to be skeptical of this peripatetic team that began life in 1920 in Chicago and spent a generation in St. Louis before moving on to Phoenix and Arizona. In 88 seasons, they’ve compiled a record of 470-670-39. To get to .500 for the life of the franchise, they’d have to go undefeated for the next 12.5 years.
In all of those seasons, they’ve been to the playoffs just six times. The first time was in 1947, and they actually won the NFL championship, beating the Eagles. They returned the following season and lost to the Eagles. They had back-to-back appearances in 1974-75, losing in the wild-card round both years. And since then, they’ve been to the playoffs just twice more, in 1982 and 1998. In that final appearance, they beat the Cowboys in the wild-card round for just their second playoff victory ever, then lost the following week to the Vikings, 41-21.
That’s their playoff history: 88 years as a franchise, six playoff appearances, two playoff victories, one title — 61 years ago. By comparison, the Chicago Cubs are a dynasty.
It’s not a case of “What have you done lately?” It’s “What have you done ever?” And when that’s the burden of history you carry, you don’t get a pat on the back for getting a gift victory over a bad team on Monday Night Football. You can make excuses for them. The 49ers played with passion if not total precision under new coach Mike Singletary. But San Francisco’s determination didn’t make the Cards commit a host of really dumb penalties down the stretch. And there’s no explanation for what looked like a panicked defense that couldn’t stop the Niners on what should have been the winning drive.
The Cardinals never did stop San Francisco. The 49ers stopped themselves. And when you’re the Cardinals, historically the worst franchise in football, you’ve got to do more than that to make anyone believe in you.
© 2008 NBC Sports.com
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