GLENDALE, Ariz. -- The temptation now is to play the what-if game.
What if the Cardinals defense hadnt melted down against the Giants, allowing 21 fourth-quarter points?
What if Chansi Stuckey hadnt fumbled in Washington? What if the offense had mustered anything at all in the second half in Seattle? What if the Cards hadnt blown a 24-6 halftime lead in Baltimore?
We lost a lot of close games at a time when everybody wasnt comfortable with what we were doing, linebacker Paris Lenon said. We still were in position to win those games, so just think if we were as comfortable as we are right now.
There was a strange feeling dancing around University of Phoenix Stadium on Sunday. Media members were watching the Lions, Falcons and Bears games with growing interest. Fans were tweeting about the possibilities.
If two of those three teams could lose and the Cards could somehow beat the 10-2 San Francisco 49ers, the unthinkable -- the playoffs -- would be possible.
Arizona (6-7) did its part, winning its fifth game in its last six outings with yet another superlative effort from the defense. The Cards held San Francisco to 233 yards, 19 points and two second-half first downs. They got five sacks from five different players for the second straight week in a 21-19 win.
They also overcame the loss of quarterback Kevin Kolb, who left the game after the first offensive series with concussion-like symptoms. His replacement, John Skelton was far better in the second go-round against San Francisco, completing 18 of 29 passes for 282 yards with three touchdowns, two more interceptions and a lost fumble.
Lets take a moment to dispel that thought creeping into your head. When Kolb comes back, he should and will play. He still gives the team its best chance to win when healthy, and the coaching staff knows it. If not for the singular talents of receiver Larry Fitzgerald, who just might be taking his game to another level this season, one of Skeltons three touchdown passes would instead have been his third interception and fourth turnover of the game -- and it could have swung the result the other way.
Give Skelton credit for making some big plays, but Kolb is the guy going forward. The shame is that the Lions and Falcons both hung on Sunday, keeping the Cards two games behind both clubs in the wild-card race with just three games to play.
Its tough to think about that now, cornerback Patrick Peterson. I cant lie. It really is.
Then dont. Remember, the Cards have also won a lot of close games that could have gone the other way. They are 6-4 in games decided by seven points or less.
From a defensive standpoint, it is undeniable now that an offseason would have done wonders for the unit and first-year coordinator Ray Horton. Perhaps they would have been up to speed in Week 1.
But all the growing pains experienced to this point of the season were a part of the process. And the worst appears to be over. Given where the Cards were just six games ago, the mere mention of playoffs represents a remarkable turn.
"You guys stuck a fork in us quite a while ago, coach Ken Whisenhunt reminded the media in his postgame comments. Our guys never let it get to them. How many times during those first weeks did we say that we were going to stay the course and that it was going to turn for us? We believed it.
We believed in what we were doing, and we still do. We are seeing the benefit of that."