(Reuters) - The unbeaten Arizona Cardinals face the St. Louis Rams on Thursday in a division that in just two years has gone from the NFL’s weakest to one of its closest fought.
In 2010 the Seattle Seahawks drew some scorn when they made it to the playoffs out of the NFC West with a 7-9 record, but after four games of this year the division is one of just two in the league where no team has a losing record.
The Cardinals, on 4-0, are surprise leaders ahead of the higher-rated San Francisco 49ers (3-1), while the Rams and the Seahawks are 2-2.
The NFC East is the only other division without a losing team after a quarter of the season, and the rise in quality in their division is something that Cardinals head coach Ken Whisenhunt said he was prepared for.
“I think that’s one of the things we all talked about going into this season - that every team had gotten better and that it was going to be a tough division,” Whisenhunt said. “It sure looks like that’s the way it is after only four games.”
The two teams go into Thursday’s clash on the back of closely fought wins - the Rams enjoyed a 19-13 victory at Seattle while the Cardinals came back to beat the Miami Dolphins in overtime 24-21.
The Cardinals are 4-0 for the first time since 1974 and have won 11 of their past 13 games, the best record in the NFL over that span.
Arizona’s form is even more impressive given that they lost their starting quarterback in the first game of the season.
Kevin Kolb had never truly established himself as a starter in his six years in the NFL and began this season watching from the sidelines until John Skelton suffered an injury in the fourth quarter of Week One.
Taking his chance, Kolb is ninth in the NFL in passing rating (97.6), has thrown seven touchdown passes and just two interceptions, and is rated second in the league on passing on third downs, although the fact he was sacked eight times against Miami indicates there is plenty for Arizona and Kolb to work on.
But it is also clear that Kolb is growing in self-belief.
“I’ve reached this confidence level before. I don’t ever want to get too high or too low but the more plays and the more victories you get and the more experiences you go through, it just gives you the confidence that you can handle things,” he said.
The Rams have won as many games this year as they managed in all of last season’s disastrous 2-14 campaign, with new head coach Jeff Fisher making his influence felt.
“Clearly the past speaks for itself,” Fisher said in a conference call on Tuesday.
“It’s been a difficult few years. What you do, you move forward and let that go. From the time we started the offseason program to date, guys have a different type of expectation. They know you can’t fix this thing overnight. But they know if you work hard, study hard, you have a chance in every game.”
Fisher has a promising young quarterback in Sam Bradford but knows the key to Thursday’s game will be protecting him from a talented Arizona defense.
“When you think you’ve got them figured out and blocked up, somebody is running free and hitting your quarterback,” Fisher said.
Reporting By Simon Evans, editing by Stephen Wood