The Arizona Cardinals are looking down at Seattle and San Francisco in the NFC West standings.
The Cardinals (3-0) enter their bye week as one of just three NFL teams without a loss. But don't expect to find any chest thumping in the Arizona locker room.
As coach Bruce Arians said, going from the top to the bottom "is a short elevator ride."
"We know we've had a good start, but that's all it is," quarterback Carson Palmer said. "We've got a chance to be a very good team, a special team, but it's a chance. We've got to go out and take advantage of what we've started."
The Cardinals don't have to look too far back to find a cautionary tale of how meaningless a fast start can be. Two seasons ago, Arizona was 4-0, then lost 11 of its next 12.
The bye week is "not relaxation time, it's reloading time," Arians said, saying the team needs to stay in shape for the rough 13 weeks ahead.
Teams prefer to have their bye week in mid-season or later, providing some rest before the stretch run. But an early bye will allow Palmer extra time to recover from the shoulder injury that kept him out of the last two games.
Among those also helped is safety Tyrann Mathieu, still trying to get back to form after a knee surgery.
"It's a bad bye week when the schedule comes out because it's so early," Palmer said. "But as it turns out, it's a blessing in disguise and we can definitely use it right now."
Arizona has overcome a series of setbacks.
In the offseason, the Cardinals lost both of their inside linebackers. Karlos Dansby signed with Cleveland as a free agent; Daryl Washington was suspended for the year for violating the league's substance abuse policy.
Then defensive tackle Darnell Dockett went down with a season-ending knee injury in training camp. And after sustaining a severe concussion in the opening victory over San Diego, outside linebacker John Abraham is out for the season.
But coordinator Todd Bowles has adjusted and, so far at least, has a strong defense that is at its best in the fourth quarter, when Arizona has outscored opponents 30-0.
"They've got a lot of pride; they've got a lot of leadership," Arians said. "Normally by then (the fourth quarter) you've seen about everything they're going to throw at you. Fourth quarter can be kind of repetitive for an offensive play caller, and our guys are very, very sharp and aware of what's going on. So if they see it a second time, they usually stop it."
The defense, adept at stopping the run, hasn't been able to get consistent pressure on the quarterback without a blitz, though. So Bowles blitzes often, confident that his talented secondary can survive some one-on-one battles.
The Cardinals quickly tried to get past the distraction of backup running Jonathan Dwyer's arrest on domestic violence charges. The team immediately deactivated him, then put him on a non-football illness list so he's gone for the season.
Five days later, the Cardinals beat the 49ers for only the second time in their last 11 meetings.
Palmer sustained nerve damage when he was slammed to the turf in the season opener. Enter backup Drew Stanton, who hadn't taken a snap in the regular season in four years. He smoothly took over the offense and directed a road victory over the New York Giants and the home win over the 49ers.
The Cardinals think they have a dangerous crew of playmakers — among them speedy rookie John Brown, dynamic tailback Andre Ellington (nursing a sore foot), wide receivers Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd, tight end John Carlson and wide receiver-kick returner Ted Ginn Jr., who returned a punt 71 yards for a touchdown against the Giants.
Next up, the Cardinals are at Denver on Oct. 5.
"I think it's a testament to our coach and our front office about getting good, quality guys in here," defensive end Calais Campbell said. "And the coaches for getting us prepared. Everybody on the team is prepared.
"Guys get ready so, when their name's called, they can do a good job. Coaches put us in a position to make plays. So it's a good team atmosphere, good coaching and a lot of hard work."
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