TEMPE, Ariz. – The Arizona Cardinals are back alone on top of the NFC West. Go figure.
This is a team that took two of the most one-sided beatings in the league this season (41-7 at Atlanta, 41-10 at San Diego). Their defense was No. 29 in the NFL, their offense No. 30 after four weeks.
Then they beat the New Orleans Saints 30-20 on Sunday, a victory as unusual as it was unexpected, considering the offense, under the controls of rookie quarterback Max Hall, did not have a rushing or passing touchdown and still beat the Super Bowl champs by double digits.
Now Arizona goes into its off week at 3-2, a half-game ahead of Seattle in a division the Cardinals have won the past two seasons.
Hall, recipient of some brutal hits during the game, has a week for the bruises to heal and to integrate himself even more into the offense. He is as confident in himself as his players seem to be in him.
"Everybody trusts me and everybody knows I can do it," he said. "I did some good things, but there is a lot I can learn from and get better. But it's a great start and I will take it."
Arizona, a team that is supposed to fall from its perch atop a bad division, is suddenly full of optimism, while the team that was supposed to supplant them, the San Francisco 49ers, is 0-5.
With a week off, the Cardinals could get injured receivers Steve Breaston and Early Doucet back for their next game, Oct. 24 at Seattle. Arizona also could have inside linebacker Gerald Hayes, who has been on the physically unable to perform list while recovering from back surgery.
If the players didn't have respect for Hall before, they certainly do after he took the punishment and kept bouncing up against New Orleans. It was particularly noticeable late in the first half on a third-and-goal play from the New Orleans 1 after the first of Drew Brees' three interceptions. It was a rollout play, but running back Tim Hightower went right when he was supposed to go left.
That left Hall with little choice but to try to score and he was pummeled at the 2-yard line by defensive tackle Anthony Hargrove, a hit so jarring it sent his helmet tumbling away. Arizona tight ends coach Freddie Kitchens later said he wondered if Hall's head was still in it.
The ball rolled away, too, but in the best example of the Cardinals' good fortune on Max's big day, left tackle Levi Brown scooped up the ball and scored to tie it at 10-10.
Larry Fitzgerald helped his young quarterback off the field.
"He's just the ultimate competitor," Fitzgerald said. "I haven't seen a guy take a hit like that, down on the goal line, in a while. He picked himself up and shook off the cobwebs and helped us win this football game."
Fitzgerald, who caught seven passes for 93 yards, already has a chemistry with Hall that the Pro Bowl receiver lacked with Derek Anderson.
"When you have a guy like that you have to just let him make plays for you," Hall said. "He is such an easy target to throw to and he is so good with his body and positioning that he makes it easy for the quarterback to get him the ball."
Not that Arizona was an offensive juggernaut. The Cardinals gained just 194 yards. Hall threw an interception with his second pass, trying to force the ball to Fitzgerald in double-coverage.
"I thought his play from watching the tape seemed to improve as the game went on," coach Ken Whisenhunt said on Monday. "He got better in the second half and I hope that's a sign of good things to come. Both other areas, defensively and special teams, really stepped up. I think they were obviously aware that we had a young quarterback."
The defense, so maligned in the week following the San Diego loss, scored two touchdowns and set up the third. After Jay Feely's' third field goal put Arizona up 16-13 21 seconds into the fourth quarter, New Orleans' Ladell Betts fumbled after a hit from Darnell Dockett and safety Kerry Rhodes scooped it up, scoring on a 27-yard return that made it 23-13 with 10:39 to go.
Brees brought New Orleans back with a 35-yard touchdown pass to Robert Meachem with 1:49 to go. Fitzgerald recovered the onside kick, but some iffy clock management gave the Saints one last chance.
That ended when Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie picked off Brees' pass and returned it 28 yards for a score with 10 seconds to go. Whisenhunt would have much preferred that his young cornerback had just gone down with the ball.
"I read that he had a comment that they kind of rubbed our noses in it last year (in the playoffs) and that was why he wanted to score to put those points on the board," Whisenhunt said. "I understand that, but I think winning the game is the most important thing. ... We'll have a constructive discussion about that."
The Cardinals will practice only on Wednesday this week, a reward for their victory.
"We're pleased to be 3-2 here at the bye," Whisenhunt said. "We would obviously like to be better, but considering our two losses, we will definitely take it."