Cardinals improving, poised for playoff berth

Three weeks ago, the Cowboys were widely considered the best team in football. Since then, they have gone 1-2, with their lone victory coming against the lowly Bengals. Sunday's 30-24 loss to Arizona was surprising, but even more surprising is that the Cardinals appear to be the better football team right now. The perennial also-rans simply have no gaping hole to compare to the current Dallas pass defense.

On Sunday, Dallas provided heavy pressure early to confuse Kurt Warner. At halftime, the Cardinals had zero offensive points, staying in the game thanks to a kickoff return touchdown by J.J. Arrington. In the second half, the Cardinals stepped up their pass protection and started to work more underneath. When the pass rush was not getting to Warner, he found open receiver after open receiver, completing 15 of 19 passes for 177 yards and two touchdowns.

The Cowboys, without injured cornerback Terence Newman, play pass defense almost exclusively with their pass rush. Adam Jones is still a very good cornerback, but the rest of the pass coverage is decidedly below average. Anthony Henry showed why the Cowboys thought about moving him to safety. He got beat badly by Steve Breaston for a touchdown. Mike Jenkins and Orlando Scandrick, meanwhile, seemed content to let plays happen in front of them.

In the past, the Cowboys' struggles on pass defense were always attributed to safety Roy Williams, but Williams has missed the past four games with an injury. The Cowboys avoided the deep bomb that Williams was prone to allow, but they were picked apart to death underneath. Only four of Warner's 30 passes traveled 15 or more yards in the air.

Warner's solid second half highlights why the veteran still holds a starting gig. When he has time in the pocket, he is accurate and efficient. Warner still makes horrendous plays, like the first quarter interception on a wild throw into double coverage. But he is protected from long yardage situations through an efficient, if not explosive, running game. Furthermore, Larry Fitzgerald's dominant play means that Warner has both a great target and a player who demands double teams.

Arizona's biggest improvement over previous seasons is a defense that is suddenly above average and improving week to week. Thanks to the schemes of coordinator Clancy Pendergast, the Cardinals have been an above-average run defense every year since 2004. This season, they have slipped a bit there, but they have made several moves to improve the pass defense. Now it is one of the 10 best in football, led by a ferocious pass rush.

Still, the biggest improvement comes in the secondary. The Cardinals have had solid pass-rushers for years, but they had no time to get to the quarterback because Arizona's poor defensive backs made it easy to find an open receiver. The secondary is not yet a strength, but it is good enough to make Romo wait an extra half-second. The result was three sacks and a handful of other hits on Romo.

The Cardinals moved failed cornerback Antrel Rolle to safety, and below-average cornerback coverage skills are still above-average safety coverage skills. Roderick Hood played extremely tough on Terrell Owens and continues to be one of the better (and most underrated) cornerbacks in football. As rookie Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie gains experience, the secondary should get even better. The improved coverage has allowed Bertrand Berry and the Cardinals' pass-rush to become the fifth-best in football based on Football Outsiders' adjusted sack rate statistics.
As good as the Cowboys remain on offense, they are leaving points on the field.

The simple truth is that Owens is being thrown too many passes. He has caught fewer than half the passes intended for him. He still has an impact in freeing up others. Jason Witten, Patrick Crayton, and Miles Austin are all having highly productive years, providing much more value on a per play basis.

Owens is 34 years old. No doubt, he is the Cowboys' best receiver, but it doesn't make sense to constantly force him the ball if the opponent is trying to take him out of the game. Even scarier, single coverage on Owens is no longer an automatic throw for Romo, who needs to hold Owens to the standard of his other receivers -- get the ball when he gets open.

Now Brad Johnson is the one who will decide when to throw to T.O., because Romo will be gone for at least three games with a broken pinkie. The Cowboys have enough talent to win with the veteran Johnson, but in the uber-competitive NFC East, they have little margin for error. If they are going to make the playoffs and make a run at the Super Bowl, the pass defense will have to improve. And while Dallas will have to sweat out a playoff berth, perennial underachiever Arizona is a complete team that seems almost certain to make the playoffs in the weak NFC West.

Ned Macey writes for FootballOutsiders.com