When your starting quarterback is named either John Skelton or Kevin Kolb, optimism -- even for the most loyal fan -- can be rather a challenge. But thanks to a remarkably stout defense and a sufficiently adequate offense, the Arizona Cardinals are perched atop the suddenly super-tough NFC West at 3-0. Their three wins are nothing to scoff at either: home versus Seattle, at New England and home against a Philly team that was rolling.
"We got a good group that is trying to do the right thing as far as executing," four-time All-Pro receiver Larry Fitzgerald told The Huffington Post. "Winning the division is our primary goal."
Fitzgerald -- who, at 29 years and 23 days old, became became the youngest wideout in NFL history to reach the 700-catch milestone -- knows all about winning and losing. He didn't enjoy a winning season until his fifth year in the league, when Arizona went to the Super Bowl.
Such a goal for this season seemed rather laughable before the year started, considering the rapid improvement of the Seahawks and the 49ers, who were coming off a stellar 13-3 regular season and NFC West title. But the Cardinals -- 3-0 for the first time in 38 years -- with their elite defense, have dictated tempo and beaten teams down with physicality and speed on both sides of the ball.
Arizona currently ranks second in the NFL in total sacks and third in yards per pass allowed, with under six yards per attempt, according to ESPN Stats & Info. On the perimeter, it boasts two of the game's premier young cornerbacks in second-year man Patrick Peterson and rookie Jamell Fleming, not to mention one of the league's best strong safeties in Adrian Wilson, whose superb cover skills allow Arizona to blitz heavily in both running and passing downs. All in all, the defense is giving up a mere 13.3 points per game, the second-best clip in the league.
As is the case with any team, however, a great defense must be complemented by a decent offense to achieve sustainable success. And given the quality of San Francisco and Seattle's defense (first in points allowed), points will be hard to come by without a top-15 quarterback on the roster.
"The defenses in our division are extremely tough," Fitzgerald said. "These are very physical teams."
Kolb, who is the starter (at least for now), has shown promise since leading the Cardinals to a Week 1 win over the Seahawks.
Whether or not Kolb's early results can hold is a completely different question. He threw eight interceptions and just nine touchdowns through nine games last season, and his numbers were nearly identical during his final season with the Eagles. Despite good mobility and a strong arm in the pocket, the 28-year-old has been a walking turnover throughout his pro career, alternating one good performance with two or three bad ones.
Fitzgerald believes that Kolb is on the right track now. "He has put in the time and kept working," he said. "Now he is reaping the rewards."
The management apparently agrees with Fitzgerald, having signed Kolb in the 2011 off-season to a five-year, $63 million contract.
Three weeks into the 2012 season, it remains far too early to forecast which team in the division will make it to January, but for the time being, Arizona appears to be the real thing. And if its opportunistic defense continues to make big plays and the offense gets something from running back Ryan Williams, the Kolb-Fitzgerald connection should only improve with time.
At the very least, staying atop the NFC West through September will be a shock in itself.
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