Maybe Arizona is a lot tougher than we, and everybody else, had given them credit for after they emerged as champs from the pathetic NFC West with a humble 9-7 record.
The Cardinals were also a meager 2-6 vs. Quality Teams
this year, easily the worst mark of any playoff team.
Neither mark spells tough.
So we were wondering if there was anything in the data that might have indicated that the Cardinals were poised to make a run. Well, there is.
Outside their punching bag of a division, the 2008 Cardinals played an extraordinarily difficult schedule. In fact, it may have been unprecedented: each of Arizona's divisional opponents had losing records. So no Quality Opponents there in Arizona's six divisional games.
But that means Arizona's eight games against Quality Opponents this year came in its 10 out-of-division contests.
- There were four games against the AFC East, which included three Quality Opponents (Dolphins, Jets, Patriots).
- There were four games against the NFC East, which also included three Quality Opponents (Giants, Eagles, Cowboys).
- Arizona's two rotating games also came against two Quality Teams (Carolina and Minnesota), both of whom were division champs.
The Cardinals, of course, have also bested three more Quality Teams in the playoffs.
So Arizona has played 13 out-of-division games this year: 11 of 13 against Quality Teams and 8 of 13 against playoff teams.
Hell, imagine if the Cardinals actually had just one decent team in their division. We might be talking today about a team that battled more Quality Opponents than any other team in NFL history.
Arizona is now 5-6 vs. Quality Opponents, and few teams in history have reached a Super Bowl after that many games against winning clubs. In fact, this is the list:
- The 1979 Steelers entered Super Bowl XIV with a 9-3 mark against Quality Teams
- The 1986 Broncos entered Super Bowl XXI with a 7-4 mark against Quality Teams
- The 2005 Steelers entered Super Bowl XL with a 7-4 mark against Quality Teams
- The 2008 Cardinals enter Super Bowl XLIII with a 5-6 mark against Quality Teams.
That's a select group among the 86 teams who have appeared in the 43 Super Bowls.
The Cardinals, in other words, are a battle-hardened team – as battle hardened as any team who's ever reached the Super Bowl, with the exception of the dynastic 1979 Steelers.