Nothing can be done about the fact that Arizona has to play the AFC North and NFC South, arguably two of the best divisions in football, in the 2007 regular season. Nothing can be done about the fact that the NFC West is slowly, but surely improving with new coaches and lots of new talent (San Francisco, I'm looking at you). What can change, however, is the mentality surrounding the Arizona Cardinals during this off-season, and, more importantly, the mentality in the locker room leading up to and through the season itself.
The Cardinals open the season in style with a Monday Night Football game against the division rival 49ers. It's my opinion that this primetime match-up is a consolation prize for the game that was outsourced to Mexico during the 2005 season. Whatever the reason (and it can't possibly be that the NFL thinks these two teams will be powerhouses in 2007), both teams will take their moment in the spotlight. The only thing that confuses me about this game is that it is going to take place in San Francisco, not in the shiny new venue that the NFL helped construct. As a modern marvel, the new stadium would make sense as a showcase for a primetime audience for kick-off weekend. But, alas, I don't make the schedule, I only analyze it.
I'm beginning to like the new schedule format of putting several division games at the beginning of the season and several at the end. The Cardinals open the season with three of their first five (including their first two games) against division foes. They close the season with three of six against the Seahawks, 49ers, and Rams respectively. As recently as 2005, the NFL was delaying the start of the divisional schedule until October, then trying to cram all of these pivotal games into open slots (seemingly random ones) in November and December, when some races had already been decided. Since the Cardinals seemed to only have success against teams in the NFC West last season (4-2 in their division, 5-11 overall), this seems like a good way to start and finish 2007.
They have a couple of lucky draws in the Redskins (a team they match-up well against) and the Lions (the only team outside of their division that they were able to beat last year) as their "wildcard" games, since the NFL's scheduling format has grown so rigid since going to eight divisions that I could probably tell you who the Cardinals are going to play in 2038. Washington will be breaking in a new quarterback and Detroit will be... well, Detroit.
So, if you pencil those two games in as victories and give the Cardinals a 4-2 division record, that leaves them with a 6-2 record and eight games up in the air. I realize that this is not the most statistically or logically sound way to predict a season, but it's early.
The issue then becomes, what to make of the remaining opponents on the schedule? Will Cleveland stop being the Cardinals of the AFC North? Will the Bengals be able to field a roster week to week between court dates? Was last year an aberration, or was that the true Steelers? Was last year an aberration, or are the Ravens that good? What happens in Sean Payton's second year? Will Bobby Petrino be this year's Sean Payton? Will Jon Gruden's squad bounce back with his job possibly on the line? What in God's name can you make of the Panthers from year to year?
We'll split the difference and say that the eight remaining games break down to a 4-4 record. That leaves the Cardinals at 10-6 overall and most likely holding a number of tiebreakers in their favor over the other teams in the division. Which, in the NFC, most likely means a home playoff game.
It's okay. I can wait until you stop laughing. I can even wait until you post this to every forum you know of and tell people that I'm an idiot. Go ahead. Just make sure you link to the story. I can wait...
Here's my point: No one sees this coming. Everyone will think that I'm a moron for believing that the Cardinals can go 10-6 and host a playoff game this season (and, in their defense, I haven't constructed a very lucid and bullet-proof argument). And, really, every other team in the league is looking at their schedule with a pencil and marking a "W" next to their date with the Cardinals.
No one is taking the Arizona Cardinals as their "sleeper" pick this year. If they didn't get burned in 2005, they got burned in 2006. And they won't get fooled again.
I, on the other hand, have yet to take the Cardinals as a sleeper pick. Which is why I will do so now.
New coach, new attitude. Ken Whisenhunt has been with winning organizations in the past. He knows what it takes to create the proper winning mentality in a locker room. He's been stocking his locker room with winners in the off-season and it already has Edgerrin James and subtracted the bad mojo of Leonard Davis.
For the first time in three years, this roster is actually more talented than anyone gives it credit for. In the past, there were gaping holes that everyone overlooked because they were too busy gawking at the receivers. Now, there is quality depth at almost every position. The Cardinals have a top five pick in this year's draft. And Matt Leinart is just starting to come into his own.
Law of averages. I understand that parity isn't all it's cracked up to be. If you spin the statistics the right way, you can say that the NFL has the least parity of all the major sports. However, at some point, all these years of suffering for loyal Cardinals fans has to end, right? It does have to, right? It can't keep on going forever and ever, can it? I think I should stop right there.
The point is this: New coach, new regime, new attitude, (almost) new stadium, (almost) new quarterback. New season.
The winds of change could be blowing.