Kevin Kolb couldn't quite find the right words to explain the euphoric wave the Arizona Cardinals have been riding, after pulling the upset of this young season Saturday afternoon, but you got the feeling something was going on that might be beyond mere Xs and Os.
Watching Kolb address the media following Arizona's wild 20-18 victory over the New England Patriots, trying to explain how this team keeps winning games with seemingly no one really noticing, despite an ongoing saga of flip-flopping quarterbacks, I was struck by how near-giddy he seemed (Kolb generally is pretty reserved in these settings), and how good this must feel. And I remembered that, for as much abuse as this guy has taken, this was still only the second game of his second season as a Cardinal. With so much drama and angst, seems like he's been there much longer than that.
This was by no means an outing of quarterbacking mastery -- Kolb was 15 of 27 for 140 yards and a touchdown -- but it was gutsy and tough. Those are things people like to knock Kolb for -- and included him running for another score and, most importantly of all, not turning the ball over. It was more than good enough. And most importantly, especially for this bunch, it puts the Cardinals among only five 2-0 NFL teams and keeps their improbable run from last season going, with an intriguing match-up on tap Sunday as Kolb's former team, the Eagles, come to town, with both Kolb and Michael Vick undefeated.
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You see, Arizona is now 9-2 over its past 11 games, tied with New England for the best record in the league during that span. As the team's PR ace, Mark Dalton pointed out cheekily on Twitter Sunday night, the Cardinals would hold the tiebreaker over the Pats by virtue of this head-to-head victory. The Cardinals should be having fun with this, for while it hasn't always been pretty with them, and they lean heavily on their most-underrated defense, the results are beyond reproach at this point.
"That's how we like to do it," Kolb told reporters after Stephen Gostkowski's potential winning, 42-yard field attempt goal sailed wide. "As long they keep falling into the 'W' column we're good."
On Sunday, everyone in America figured that when the Patriots recovered a fumble, already in field goal range, with about a minute left, the game was over. When Danny Woodhead ran the ball into the end zone, leaving the Cards with little time, it seemed like it was over. But a holding penalty -- which displeased Bill Belichick greatly and was but one of many controversial decisions by the replacement officials in Week 2 -- negated the score and the usually clutch kicker came up empty.
"It's crazy, it really is nuts," Kolb said. "It just seems to be our vibe -- as soon as you think you get in a rhythm, or as soon as things are done, then something sparks it up. The last 10 or 11 games have been going our way and hopefully they continue to do that."
Kolb enjoyed the rare luxury of getting a full week of preparation and practice because starter John Skelton suffered an ankle injury in Week 1. Kolb, a week before, came in cold and beat the Seahawks. So, so far, so good with him this month.
Even if Skelton is ready to come back this week to practice, I suspect the Cardinals stick with Kolb. They have been riding the hot hand -- or the least-cool hand -- since injuries to the quarterback position started becoming a part of the Cardinals' life last season. They didn't make the trade for Kolb and pay him roughly $20 million over two seasons to watch him sit. And while Skelton was picking up wins with this plucky bunch down the stretch last season, statistically there is no argument that Kolb has been superior in Arizona.
But the real star here is the defense, led by Darnell Dockett in the trenches (he absolutely ravaged the Seahawks in Week 1) and Patrick Peterson in the secondary and on special teams. Defensive coordinator Ray Horton, who learned his craft in Pittsburgh under legendary Dick LeBeau, quickly fashioned himself a potent unit after a difficult adjustment early last season, and he could end up as a hot head coaching candidate sooner than expected.
During their 11-game run the Cards have not scored more than 23 points in this the era of pinball offense. The defense has not allowed more than 23 points and has been downright stifling. The only two losses were to the 49ers and Bengals -- 2011 playoff teams -- and Arizona has 33 sacks in this 11-game stretch, most in the NFL in that span.
Tom Brady couldn't sustain anything against them Sunday.
"They have a good defense and they certainly put a lot of pressure on you to make good plays and they don't really give you any easy ones," Brady said after the shocking defeat (the Patriots were basically two touchdown favorites).
Horton, from his years in Pittsburgh, clearly had unique insight into the New England offense and his players show up every week fired up and brimming with enthusiasm.
"Physical, fast, ferocious to get after the quarterback," Peterson said in describing Horton's defense after the win. "Coach Horton definitely had a pretty good game plan together. He wanted to get after these guys and he wanted to keep pressure in their face so we could confuse them a little bit, and we did."
This defense is no fluke, and after the tough game vs. Philly on Sunday, Arizona faces Miami, St. Louis, Buffalo and Minnesota before getting its next shot at the division champion 49ers. Those all are winnable games, but keep in mind that the NFC West no longer is comprised of doormats. Seattle's loss came against these Cardinals and the Seahawks smashed the Cowboys on Sunday, St. Louis lost to Detroit on a controversial clock-operator decision and beat Washington. And the 49ers? They may be the NFL's premier team.
This could be a year when more than one team from the division makes the playoffs, and everyone in this division figures to be improved over 2011.
In case you haven't noticed, this is the year of the rookie kicker. Already. It's a legit trend.
In Week 1, the Rams rookie kicker, Greg Zuerlein, nailed all three field-goal attempts, including a 48-yarder to begin his career and a 46-yarder with less than two minutes left that could have won the game. He followed that up by going 3 for 3 again in Week 2, in a win against the Redskins in which every point was going to be important. Jeff Fisher was quietly raving about this kid in the preseason. And, kicking in a dome, the Rams don't think a 70-yarder is out of question. (Love the Rams going with a rookie punter and second-year long snapper as well, keeping costs down with the specialists and also getting great bang for their buck, as they parted with higher-priced Kris Brown).
Ravens rookie kicker Justin Tucker doesn't have that dome luxury, but he didn't miss anything in camp and was outstanding in the preseason. The Ravens cut veteran Billy Cundiff, a year after giving him a big extension, to go with Tucker (Cundiff's miss to send the AFC Championship Game into overtime loomed large, too). Tucker crushed a 56-yard field goal at Philadelphia on Sunday that ended up reaching the stands behind the upright, and was also good from 51 and 48 ... and had the Ravens been able to cross midfield on their last-ditch drive to win trailing by one, everyone in that stadium would have been fearing this kid's leg.
He's able to boom it on kickoffs, too, saving a roster spot there, and Tucker was perfect on all three attempts in Week 1. The kid does not lack for confidence, and after Sunday’s loss he told CSNBaltimore.com: "My range would probably extend to the upper 60s on a good day," So far he's had nothing but good days.
Minnesota's Blair Walsh went 4 for 4 in Week 1, nailing a 55-yarder to send the game into overtime and capping an improbable comeback win in overtime from 38 yards. He's 6 for 6 on the season and has two already from 50 yards or more, and made Ryan Longwell expendable. So yeah, these kids are perfect so far, with obviously a lot of season to play.
But in a copycat league don’t be surprised if more teams become willing to draft stud kickers and punters a little higher and perhaps be a little more weary on the high-end of the kicker market, especially with the cap staying pretty flat the next few years.
• During my travels during the preseason, there was one place I visited where the expectations of the local fans were pretty out of whack with how I viewed it: Kansas City. I said I thought they were a .500 team on the radio there, and I was getting killed on Twitter as if I insulted the mayor or extolled the virtues of Texas barbeque. People were all over me. The Chiefs, you see, were going to be the breakout team of 2012, headed for the playoffs. I missed the memo -- but after two weeks, the Chiefs' getting to .500 may be ambitious. The defense is getting shredded, and yes, the Chiefs rallied some a year ago, but pressure is mounting on general manager Scott Pioli. Owner Clark Hunt may have to make drastic changes to appease his fan base if the Chiefs continue down this road. They get a desperate Saints team this week, on the road, and then San Diego, Baltimore and the new-look Bucs await before they face the hated Raiders. Could get late early for the Chiefs. ...
• Speaking of the Raiders, fewer and fewer believe Carson Palmer can put a team on his back anymore, and unless Darren McFadden starts exploding soon, the Raiders could be in deep trouble. They desperately need balance but 2 yards per carry will doom them.
• Huge statement by the Carolina Panthers on Sunday. They truly do not like the Saints and after abandoning the run in a misguided loss to the Bucs, they crammed it down New Orleans' throat. And don't look now, but Brandon LaFell is a big-time, big-play complement to Steve Smith.
• Been a skeptic for quite some time that Jake Locker is close to being the best quarterback on the Titans roster, and the Chargers tormented and befuddled him Sunday. The tendency to loft it up for grabs and miss high cost him early with a bad pick, and he never recovered. If the Titans want to remain on the wild-card scene, they may have to end up going back to the veteran quarterback sooner than expected, and make some major schematic changes to the run game as well.