If the Saints beat Chicago tonight, a Vikings win over the Cardinals on Sunday would give them the NFC North title. But it could also have strong implications for the playoff seeding between Minnesota and Arizona.
With a division championship and a home playoff game secured, the Cardinals will focus on finishing the season strong and perhaps improving their seeding in the playoffs, coach Ken Whisenhunt said.
That's what makes this week's game against the Vikings important. Both teams are 8-5, and the Vikings currently hold the tiebreaker advantage because of a better conference record (6-3 vs. 6-4).
But the first tiebreaker is head-to-head results. And playoff seeding is something Whisenhunt is emphasizing to his club.
"You look at the history of the playoffs, and generally, the higher seeds have a better chance of advancing," he said.
It's hard to determine, however, if there is much of an advantage between the third and fourth seed. It could be the difference between playing Atlanta or Tampa Bay.
The most important seeds to get are either of the top two, but the Cardinals don't have much of a chance of that.
The Giants (11-2) already have a three-game lead over the Cardinals and have beaten them. The Panthers (10-3) have a two-game lead and also have beaten the Cardinals.
The more important goal, then, should be to play well down the stretch and finish strong against the Vikings, Patriots and Seahawks. Two more victories will give the Cardinals 10 victories for the season, their most since 1976, 12 years before they moved to Arizona.
"There were days where you just thought, ‘When can we be on top?'" said defensive end Antonio Smith
. "We always knew we had the talent. We still have stuff to come. The best I'm ever going to feel is when we're in the second round of the playoffs, get a win, go on to that third round and you know what's after that."
SERIES HISTORY: 19th regular-season meeting. The series is tied 9-9, but the Vikings have won six of the past seven games. It's the teams' first meeting in Arizona since 2003, when the Cardinals knocked the Vikings out of the playoffs with an 18-17 victory in Sun Devil Stadium. Quarterback Josh McCown
hit Nate Poole for a touchdown pass on the last play of the game. The teams last played in 2006 with Cardinals coach Dennis Green
returning to Minnesota, where he coached the Vikings for 10 years. The Vikings won that game, 31-26.
Owner Bill Bidwill is fond of the hats the team received to commemorate their first division title in 33 years. "He likes his hat," said son Michael. "A lot."
It was fitting the Cardinals clinched the division title on Alumni Weekend. Many ex-Arizona Cardinals were in attendance, as well as a few from the St. Louis era, including quarterback Jim Hart and safety Larry Wilson. "Am I excited?" Wilson said. "You're damn right. What a time!"
Running back Edgerrin James isn't happy with his diminished role, but he enjoyed the division clinching victory and celebration. "It's the reason why I can here," he said. "I know it had the potential to accomplish this. It's unfortunate for the situation with myself. But at the end of the day, you're happy for the city of Phoenix. I'm for all of my teammates at the end of the day. It's not about me."
Running back Tim Hightower isn't gaining many yards on the ground, but he is scoring touchdowns. He has 10 for the season, a franchise record for rookies. In his past five games, Hightower has gained 118 yards on 54 carries.
The Cardinals would prefer to play with the roof at University of Phoenix Stadium closed. QB Kurt Warner has a great record in domes, and it's noisier when the lid is closed. Under coach Ken Whisenhunt, however, the team is 5-1 with the roof open.
Cornerback Eric Green has plummeted down the depth chart, moving from the starting lineup to inactive. Green is really the team's fifth corner now, and didn't suit up last week against the Rams. Michael Adams, on the practice squad three weeks ago, is playing ahead of Green now because he's a better special teams player.
TE Stephen Spach, signed in late October, has started the past four games and played reasonably well. Spach already is the team's best blocker at tight end and he's bright enough to have picked up the offense quickly. That's allowed him to move ahead of Leonard Pope.
RB J.J. Arrington continues to be productive out of the team's spread formations. He had runs of 16 yards and 9 yards in the opening drive last week and later added pass receptions of 10 and 15 yards. Arrington is willing now to put his head down and work for a first down. That wasn't the case earlier in his career.
FS Antrel Rolle has made great improvement over the last two months and appears fully integrated in the job after moving from corner. The team is starting to use Rolle as a blitzer, an indication that coaches are handing him more duties.
QB Kurt Warner has committed eight turnovers in the past four games and there is concern he's slipping into a few of his old, bad habits. Coaches are going to emphasize ball security and smart decision-making in practices.
BY THE NUMBERS: 60.3 — That's the percentage of times the Cardinals have scored touchdowns when inside their opponents' 20-yard line this year. They have been inside the 20 on 58 occasions, second only the Giants (60).
QUOTE TO NOTE: "We're going to do it two ways. We're going to stay committed to our core players, even though there will be changes, as a whole, to our roster. And the second aspect of it is the quality of coaching this team will receive will make a big difference, as it has this year. You can have (good) players and not have success." - Cardinals general manager Rod Graves on how the team will try to sustain this year's success.