Perception of Cardinals Changed 180 This Week

Kurt Warner (Getty)

It's amazing how the perception of a team can change 180 degrees in a week. After their victory over the Giants in Week 7, the Cardinals appeared to be on course for another NFC West title. It was their third consecutive victory, their biggest regular-season road win in years, and they were 4-2 with a so-called "easy" schedule ahead.

But last week's 34-21 loss to the Panthers brought everyone down to earth. Now, people are wondering how a defense that ranked first in the league against the run could yield 270 rushing yards.

They are wondering why one of the league's best receivers, Larry Fitzgerald, can't get open for the deep pass. Or why coach Ken Whisenhunt isn't designing better plays to get him open. Fitzgerald's yards per reception average is down about four yards from last season.

Nothing highlights a team's flaws like losing to a 10-point underdog, and the loss to the Panthers seemed to expose the Cardinals as the same immature group that took the field last season.

The Cardinals often moan about a lack of respect, but it's hard to give it to them when they play like they did against the Panthers.

"These are the kinds of games, after big wins, that you have to come back with the same intensity," quarterback Kurt Warner said. "I've played a long time with a lot of different teams and it's a hard thing to do. We just didn't bring our 'A' game."

The Cardinals are still in good shape. They remain in first place in the NFC West, a game ahead of the 49ers. And the schedule ahead doesn't appear tough. After facing the Bears (4-3), the Cardinals play three teams with losing records: the Seahawks (2-5), Rams (1-7) and Titans (1-6).

The Cardinals were 4-3 last year at this point, then won three straight to effectively clinch the division title. They are capable of going on a similar streak, but they are also capable of losing a couple of those games if they play the way they did against Carolina.

SERIES HISTORY: 88th regular-season meeting. The Bears lead 55-26-6 and have won the last three. The teams last met in 2006 and, in Arizona, the game is known as The Monday Night Meltdown. The Cardinals (1-4) at the time led the undefeated Bears, 23-3. But they let the Bears score three touchdowns in the final quarter to lose, 24-23. That touched off former coach Dennis Green's famous post-game rant. "

You want to crown them, go ahead and crown their asses," he said, his voice rising. "But they are exactly who we thought they are, and we let them off the hook."

NOTES, QUOTES

--RB Jason Wright suffered a dislocated thumb during last week's game, and the bone was poking through the skin. Doctors set the bone back into place and stitched the wound, and Wright played the final three quarters.

"I was blocking a guy and he kind of beat me across my face and my thumb was stuck in his pads or something and it kind of ripped it," Wright said. "My hand was caught in his shoulder pads I think. I'm surprised I didn't get called for holding. I looked down and my glove was (pointed) that way. I thought, 'Oh, that's not good.' It didn't hurt, though. It was the grace of God. The only thing that hurt was the stitches."

The doctor teased Wright that hockey players didn't require any numbing when getting stitches. Wright is tough, but not that tough.

"I said, 'No, numb me up.' There were a couple stitches where he didn't numb it and I don't want to do that again. I'm good."

--WR Anquan Boldin aggravated an ankle sprain in the second half against the Panthers and didn't return. Boldin admitted the ankle probably isn't going to fully recover until he rests it. But he has no intention of resting it if he's able to play.

"If I'm good enough to play, I'm going to play," he said. "If I'm able to run, I'm going to play football."

Even if, say, is at 80 percent?

"Yeah, if I'm able to get out there, I'm going to play."

--Anquan Boldin passed Larry Centers last week to become the franchise's leader in receptions. He has 537 catches but setting the record is no big deal to Boldin. "I don't care about that stuff."

--The Cardinals were 14-4 at home in Ken Whisenhunt's first two seasons as coach. This season they are 1-3, and the one victory came thanks to a late goal-line stand against Houston.

"We haven't protected our house at all this year," said nose tackle Bryan Robinson. "We had to do a goal line play against Houston to win that game. We're out of sync right now."

BY THE NUMBERS: 11 -- That's the number of interceptions and the number of touchdown passes Kurt Warner has this year. Last year through seven games, he had 14 touchdown passes and six interceptions.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "I ain't got nothing polite to say, so I'd rather not say anything at all." -- Strong safety Adrian Wilson in the aftermath of last week's loss to the Panthers.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

--RB Beanie Wells needs to become a bigger part of the offense. He's a dynamic runner, and there is an obvious difference when he's in the game instead of Tim Hightower.

--DE Darnell Dockett has been hampered the past two weeks with a sprained ankle and it's limited his ability to make explosive plays. Dockett still had six tackles in each of those games. He hasn't missed a game in his six seasons.

--WR Anquan Boldin might have to sit out a game to rest his sprained right ankle. Boldin is playing through the injury but he hasn't been able to complete a game at full speed for the past two weeks. It might be time to rest him and start Steve Breaston.

PLAYER NOTES

--TE Stephen Spach might be able to return this week from an ankle injury, which will force coaches to make an interesting decision. The Cardinals have had success lately using tight ends Anthony Becht and Ben Patrick, so it might be hard to fit Spach into the active roster on game day.

--WR Early Doucet could see his first action of the season Sunday because of Anquan Boldin's ankle injury. With Boldin questionable, the Cardinals might need an extra receiver. Doucet, a third-round pick in 2008, has looked good in practice and coach Ken Whisenhunt has said several times that he wants to work Doucet into the lineup.

--S Matt Ware, who plays in the team's nickel and dime packages, has performed well this season. Ware allows strong safety Adrian Wilson to move closer to the line of scrimmage, where he is effective as a blitzer and against the run.

GAME PLAN: The Cardinals need to force the ball downfield to receiver Larry Fitzgerald. They aren't taking many shots deep to him. Fitzgerald is usually covered by two people, including a safety. It would help if the Cardinals could run the ball and open up the play-action game. Defensively, the Cardinals need to shore up their run defense, which was porous last week. The tackling was poor, and the line was dominated by the Panthers. The pass rush didn't produce much pressure, either.

MATCHUPS TO WATCH:

Cardinals WR Larry Fitzgerald vs. Bears CB Charles Tillman.

Fitzgerald is on pace for a season with 100 catches and a 1,000 receiving yards. But he isn't getting the chance to make plays downfield. The Cardinals don't care much who will cover Fitzgerald, because they will take him against any cornerback in the league.

Bears DRE Alex Brown vs. Cardinals LT Mike Gandy.

The Cardinals run a lot of four-receiver sets, which leaves Gandy isolated against defensive ends. Gandy has had some trouble against fast defensive ends.

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