Behind enemy lines: Arizona

A two-game winning streak has placed the Arizona Cardinals in prime position for a run at a playoff appearance. Four of their final six games are at home and only two of the opponents have winning records. If the Cardinals don't make their second playoff appearance since moving to Arizona in 1988, they will have only themselves to blame.

As expected, coach Ken Whisenhunt is taking the "one-at-a-time" approach.

"We're aware of where we are, but it's not a focus of ours right now," he said. "I think the best way for us to handle it is to just go one at a time."

Two weeks ago, the Cardinals were in serious trouble. Coming off a bye weekend, they played their worst game of the year, losing 17-10 to Tampa Bay. Arizona's offense committed turnovers. The defense couldn't get a stop on third down. Worse, the Cardinals looked disinterested.

But they have pulled out of that, beating Detroit and Cincinnati to even their record at 5-5. It's the first time they've been .500 after 10 games since 1998, their only playoff year in the desert.

"I'm excited because of where our team is," Whisenhunt said. "It's their excitement, the energy they felt after the game ... the way their interaction is with each other. To have an opportunity this time of they year is very exciting."

The story of the turnaround can be found in the turnover ratio. In the past two games, the Cardinals defense has 10 takeaways. The offense committed four in those games but had none against the Bengals.

On offense, the Cardinals has emphasized the need to hang on to the ball. Quarterback Kurt Warner has been exceptional in the past two games. His only turnover in the past two games was an interception against Detroit.

That's a great accomplishment, considering that Warner is playing with a brace on his left arm, handing off almost exclusively with his left arm and dealing with more pressure than he did earlier in the season.

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Last Sunday, cornerback Antrel Rolle finally looked the guy who was deemed worthy of being the eighth overall pick in the 2005 draft. He had two interception returns for touchdowns and had a third called back because of a penalty.

Just a few days before the game, Whisenhunt praised Rolle for his work ethic and professionalism. Rolle could have easily gone in the tank after being demoted from his starting job in the preseason, which had to be a blow to someone once so highly touted.

Rolle's NFL career has been rocky. He played in five games as a rookie because of a knee injury. As a starter last year, teams constantly picked on him, and due to poor technique, he often was called for interference and holding.

Those problems continued to plague him in the preseason, and he was beaten out for a starting job by Eric Green and Rod Hood.

Rolle, however, has played well all year as the team's nickel corner. Under the tutelage of secondary coach Teryl Austin, Rolle has worked hard on his technique and improved greatly.

The work paid off for the Cardinals on Sunday. Without Rolle's plays, it would have been another road loss. Instead, the club is 5-5, the first time it's been .500 after 10 games since 1998. That was the team's only winning season and only playoff year in its Arizona history.

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The players talked Whisenhunt out of chewing out Rolle for celebrating after his second interception return for a touchdown last week.

"I was going down there to say something about it, and a number of the players said, 'Coach, that's his second touchdown. You can't say anything.' I said, 'Well, yea, you're right.' So, for the record, I'll make the special exception that on the second interception return for a touchdown, I'll forgive you for a celebration."

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No one in the NFL has ever returned three interceptions for touchdowns in one game, but Rolle was a penalty away from doing that. Rolle had his third interception return called back in the fourth quarter because of a personal foul on defensive end Antonio Smith.

Smith was penalized for leveling quarterback Carson Palmer, although the hit appeared legal and Palmer looked like he was getting in position to try and tackle Rolle.

"This quarterback thing is getting outrageous," Smith said of officials protecting quarterbacks.

Rolle wasn't mad at Smith.

"As a matter of fact, I thanked him for it," Rolle said. "I knew he was trying to help me out, trying to get me to the end zone for the third time today and that's my teammate. Antonio, he's been a baller all year long, why stop now? Why stop now, just because I have the ball in my hand?"

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TE Leonard Pope has been penalized 10 times this season, and seven of them have been false starts. On most of those, Pope was trying to make a cut-off block.

"He's trying to jump the count as close as he can to make that block," Whisenhunt said. "So he's legitimately working hard to do his job, and what's happening is, he think he hears the count and he jumps."

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WR Larry Fitzgerald's salary will jump to $14.6 million next year if he's chosen for the Pro Bowl. The Cardinals will try to extend his contract and lower that figure. The club is also going to try to re-sign LBs Karlos Dansby and Calvin Pace. And it might look into new deals for WR Anquan Boldin and S Adrian Wilson.

"Ultimately, what it means for us is that we won't be as active (in free agency) as we've been last year and the previous year, simply because our focus is on trying to address our core," GM Rod Graves said.

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It appears the Cardinals will be without strong safety Adrian Wilson for the second straight week, and there are concerns that the lower leg injury could keep him out even beyond this week.

Wilson has been struggling with pain in his heel, Achilles and calf, and he said on his weekly radio show that he has a tear in a tendon near the heel and Achilles area. It might require surgery in the offseason, but Wilson is hopeful he'll be able to return soon.

But judging from the way he's walking, Wilson isn't going to return soon. He's hobbling along and has been wearing a walking boot to limit movement in the foot.

His absence damages the defense a considerable amount. Much of what the Cardinals do is built upon Wilson's skills. Wilson is effective staying back in coverage, covering a slot receiver, blitzing or just moving up to a linebacker spot to play the run.

His replacement, Oliver Celestin, is a solid pro but he doesn't have anywhere near the skills that Wilson does.

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The Cardinals need to concentrate on getting their running game going. RB Edgerrin James is averaging about 42 yards a game in the past three games. Whisenhunt thinks that can be accomplished if the Cardinals can punish teams that pack the box with safeties by hitting pass plays. He also thinks his offensive linemen need to do a better job staying on blocks.

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The Cardinals ran only 29 plays in the second half last week, gaining just 60 yards. James finished with 52 yards on 22 carries. James said it was because the Bengals committed their safeties to stopping the run.

"That's a sign of respect," James said. "They have a safety down and the thing about it, it opens up the passing game. I just wish I didn't have to take so many hits to open up the passing game."

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On an 85-yard drive in the second quarter last week, Warner completed an underhand pass and one that he tossed up with his left hand. It was intended for James, but sailed over his head into the arms of tight end Leonard Pope, who is 6-8.

Pope gained 22 yards on the play, down to the Bengals 4. "I knew there was nobody behind him so I knew I could get away with it," Warner said of the left-handed pass. "Then here comes long arms (Pope) and makes a great play for us."


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Warner has made a big effort to reduce his number of mistakes in the past two weeks, and it has paid off greatly for the Cardinals.

Warner had just one interception against Detroit a week ago and had none at Cincinnati last Sunday. The Cardinals defense, meanwhile, forced 10 turnovers in those games, and the positive ratio is the biggest reason the team has won two in a row.

Warner deserves a considerable amount of credit for the improvement. In his three previous starts this year for the Cardinals he had been intercepted four times and lost three fumbles.

He has played the past three games with a large brace on his left arm, which has limited him to handing off with his right hand on the vast majority of snaps. That's an awkward thing to do, and it requires a big adjustment by Warner and the running backs, most notably the starter, James.

Warner has shown more care with his passes, too. He was under a heavy rush last week in Cincinnati, yet he refrained from forcing the ball into coverage.



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