Even after the Arizona Cardinals came within 157 seconds of carting home the Lombardi Trophy last February, some naysayers continued to label the Cards the worst Super Bowl team of all time.
Were they right?
Well, the Redbirds haven't done much to naysay the naysayers since, losing all four preseason games in super-bland style and pulling a dishwater-dull choke job at University of Phoenix Stadium last Sunday in their home/season opener against the San Francisco 49ers. Cardinals head coach Ken Whisenhunt is predictably (but not, on some levels, unreasonably) preaching no panic as his sluggish and somewhat shell-shocked crew heads into its week-two match-up in Jacksonville against the Jaguars.
Whisenhunt can say it, and he may even believe it deep down, but in their 20-16 loss to the Niners, the Cardinals blew the two huge edges they used in 2008 to get to that big pirate ship in Tampa: home-field advantage and division dominance. None of those thrilling playoff moments from last year would've happened if the Cards hadn't put a giant 6-0 whup-ass on San Francisco, Seattle, and St. Louis. The 9-7 Big Red won only three non-divisional games during the entire '08 campaign, and the '09 non-div sched is hardly a cake walk.
Indianapolis. Carolina. Minnesota. Green Bay.
At the Bears. At the Titans. At the Giants.
Last year, Jack Del Rio's offensively toothless Jags (led by -- yawn -- quarterback David Garrard) probably wouldn't have inspired undue trepidation. Those Cards had the offensive cojónes to outwit (or at least outscore) a tough, well-conditioned, cojónes-kicking defensive crew like Del Rio's. These Cards -- who boast two of the top wideouts in the league in Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin, but made tailback Tim Hightower look like the All Pro receiver -- already seem on the ropes. Or maybe they've just lost their beating heart: offensive coordinator and head Cardinal cojóne kicker Todd Haley, now the main man in Kansas City.
Never mind that Jacksonville tail-spinned to 5-11 last year, that it's 0-1 in '09 after losing 14-12 to Indy in week one, that Del Rio's job is justifiably hanging by a bloody sinew, and that it's an NFL franchise so poorly regarded on its home turf that it's unlikely to sell out a single home game this season.
Arizona, sans the ever-inventive Haley and with Whisenhunt now calling non-stop dink-and-dunks to Hightower, suddenly seems like an emperor without clothes -- a reigning NFC champion staring 0-2 in the face (given its historical aversion to morning games on the East Coast) and quite possibly 0-3 (what with Indianapolis and Peyton Manning lurking in the wings for a big Sunday Night Football showcase in week three).
There's no doubt that the Cards' offense will catch fire at some point during the season, as it did in that one four-minute stretch in the third quarter of the 49ers game. But if this team's anything like the last one (and, hey, we can only hope), it'll need every break in the book merely to make the playoffs. This semi-talented squad can't afford to hand out freebies -- via penalties, Kurt Warner floaters, or dunderheaded tactical mishaps -- to the purportedly inferior likes of San Francisco.
Or the Jaguars.
For a team like the Cardinals, still battling the fluke tag with legitimate reason, the difference between 1-1 and 0-2 is massive.
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If the Cards can pull one out in J-Ville under less-than-optimal circumstances, the Big Red naysayers will have to eat desert dirt.
If our heroes come home clutching their cojónes, all bets are off.
The Cards visit Jacksonville Municipal Stadium at 10 a.m. Sunday. TV: FOX 10. Radio: KTAR-FM 92.3. More info: www.azcardinals.com.