Cardinals doing what Rams had hoped in NFC West

EARTH CITY, Mo. -- In many ways, the Arizona Cardinals have become the team the St. Louis Rams hoped to be in this, the third year under coach Jeff Fisher and general manager Les Snead.

Not necessarily in style of play, though the Cardinals' defense is every bit as physical as their NFC West division brethren, but more in terms of how they've ascended in a division and with injuries which we've been told would be difficult to overcome.

For the better part of the past three seasons, much of the focus in the NFC West has been on Seattle and San Francisco and justifiably so given those teams' postseason accomplishments. The Rams and Cardinals, who meet Sunday at 4:25 p.m. ET at University of Phoenix Stadium, have been considered the little brothers to the big, bad Seahawks and Niners. They're feisty enough to hang in there and maybe even win a fight or two but at the end of the day, big brother would always get the best of them.

At least, that was the expectation heading into this season as the Rams and Cardinals set about attempting to dethrone the kings. But while the Rams have remained mired in mediocrity, the Cardinals have enjoyed the same ascension the Rams had hoped they might enjoy this year.

Arizona boasts the league's best record at 7-1, a major surprise to many but not to those in the Rams' locker room.

"We’ve never overlooked that team, never looked down at that team," guard Rodger Saffold said. "We’ve always known they’ve been a good group even in years past, we’ve looked at them as a good group. A lot of these games are decided in the last minute as you guys know."

So how is it, then, that of the two teams considered to be the also-rans of the division, one can emerge at the top of the division while the other continues to languish in the basement? There are any number of possible explanations and some might argue that what separates the Cardinals and Rams is a more stable, veteran roster with a veteran quarterback in Carson Palmer in place. While there's some merit to that, it seems the biggest difference can be found in the teams' respective identities.

With Bruce Arians and general manager Steve Keim in charge in Arizona, there is a clear, obvious distinction of who the Cardinals want to be. They have an offense which wants to rely on the vertical passing game while mixing in the run and an aggressive, attacking defense that stops the run and creates turnovers.

Using that knowledge, Keim is able to draft players like little known rookie John Brown knowing he'll be utilized in the offense right away with a chance to contribute. It all starts with Arians' vision for the future and his unrelenting honesty to and about his team.

“He’s a straight shooter," Palmer said. "There is not something he’s hiding or no two-faced anything like that. He tells it like it is. Whether you’re playing well or bad, you’re going to hear about it. He doesn’t make any exceptions for who you are. It’s something the guys really respect. It’s easy to respect and play for a coach that ... he wears his emotions on his sleeve and just tells it like it is every day.”

For the Cardinals, the full buy-in to Arians' plans didn't happen until after a midseason loss to San Francisco in 2013. Arians pointed to a downtrodden locker room that needed everybody to believe winning every week was possible. Arians pushed the right button and the results have been as good as any team in the league. After that game, the Cardinals finished 7-3 and have gone on to win 14 of their past 18 games.

“I think it’s a matter of going out and doing it," Arians said. "The one thing about our division is everybody’s got a physical, excellent defense. It all comes down to your quarterback play and Carson for us halfway through last season began playing very, very well. I look at the whole division and everybody has offense, defensive lines, and the quarterback play usually separates everything."

Like the Rams, the Cardinals have also suffered plenty of injuries along the way, including one to Palmer earlier in the season. But Arizona has been more adept at overcoming those injuries in part because of a large coaching staff that allows for more attention to the backups and scout team in practice. The more personalized approach helps all 53 players work to get better every week.

"We have a large staff because I believe in small classrooms and a lot of eyes on players," Arians said. "Fundamentals win games, it’s not schemes. Too many young coaches get caught up in schemes, it’s blocking and tackling and you’ve got to have eyes on everybody out there on the practice field. With that many guys, we have eyes on our show team guys so they’re getting coached constantly when they’re putting on the other teams plays. So that if and when an injury occurs they’re ready to play.”

When the Rams look across the field at the Cardinals on Sunday, they won't be intimidated. They have wins against the Seahawks and 49ers and have a win against the Cardinals as recently as last year. They'll also see the team they'd hoped to see when they look in the mirror.

"Since Coach Fisher’s been here, we don’t really look at anybody in our division looking up," linebacker James Laurinaitis said. "The standings you are technically looking up but we’ve always felt like we’re built to play against teams in our division. Arizona is one of them. There’s not any jealousy like that. We knew that going into the season everyone would kind of be talking about Seattle and San Francisco and for great reasons but we knew Arizona should be clumped in there as well. I’m not surprised by their record at all."