Cardinals Quietly Clinch NFC West Title

Anquan Boldin & Co. Celebrate (Getty)

The Arizona Cardinals did what they set out to do, which was to clinch the NFC West title for the second-straight year. Next up, is St. Louis. With any luck, the Cardinals will be able to handle the Rams better than the Lions and rest some of their players. The Cardinals must improve greatly if they are going to make another playoff run.

This season's accomplishments should not be brushed aside quickly. The Cardinals haven't won consecutive division titles since 1974-75 and they haven't had consecutive winning seasons since 1982-83. With one more victory, they can finish with their most wins in a season since 1976.

The franchise struggled for too many years for those milestones to be ignored.

But this team knows it needs to show improvement over the final two games. Last season, the Cardinals were able to do that despite losing four of their final six games. A victory over Seattle in the season finale propelled the Cardinals into the playoffs, where they advanced to their first Super Bowl.

The Cardinals haven't played well since upsetting the Vikings on Dec. 6. They committed seven turnovers in a loss at the 49ers the following week and they blew a 17-0 halftime lead against the lowly Lions on Sunday.

"We've been there before," said strong safety Adrian Wilson. "There's not as much excitement in this locker room as there should be after a win. I just think, maturity wise, this is a game that shows we just can't show up and beat anybody. You have to play your best ball throughout four quarters."

Other Cardinals, however, were less critical. Like Wilson, receiver Anquan Boldin has been through too man lean years not to appreciate winning consecutive division titles.

"From the time I've got here, I've been trying to change the culture," he said, "and it's finally getting to that point. You see your hard work coming into play."

The Cardinals could face an interesting end to the season. They should handle the 1-13 Rams next week. Depending on how things shake out in the final week, they could end up facing the Packers in the first round of the playoffs as well as the season finale.

If there's no chance for the Cardinals to become the No. 2 seed, Ken Whisenhunt might opt to rest his starters in the regular-season game against the Packers. It's almost certain he will considering not playing quarterback Kurt Warner, or limiting him to just a few snaps.

LINEUP WATCH: With safety Matt Ware on injured reserve with a knee injury, rookie safety Rashad Johnson must prove he's ready for primetime. Johnson, a third-round pick, has been slow to develop and coaches made him inactive for six of seven games during the middle of the season. Johnson needs to step up because he is one of the team's defensive backs in the dime package. He will be challenged in coverage. Johnson has played better in recent weeks so coaches are encouraged.

TRENDING: The Cardinals haven't been as dependent on receiver Larry Fitzgerald in recent weeks or last season. Fitzgerald is facing tough coverage every week and it's been difficult for him to get open deep. The Cardinals also have gone to more two tight end formations, and have been effective running and passing out of it. The run game has developed enough so Kurt Warner doesn't have to throw 40 times a game. Fitzgerald still has managed to surpass the 1,000-yard receiving mark for the fourth time in his six-year career.

PLAYER/PERSONNEL NOTES

--K Mike Nugent filled in well for the injured Neil Rackers. Nugent made his only field goal attempt, a 48-yarder. --PR Steve Breaston muffed his first punt in three years on the job. Breaston had handled 106 punts cleanly before losing one against the Lions.

--RB Beanie Wells gained 110 yards against the Lions, the first 100-yard game for the rookie. Don't be surprised if Wells moves into the starting lineup ahead of Tim Hightower.

--CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie had two interceptions against the Lions, despite playing with a painful turf toe injury on the big left toe.

--K Neil Rackers probably will miss at least another week with a torn right groin muscle.

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