This was the test. The Arizona Cardinals, long the National Football League's biggest laughing stock outside the greater Detroit area, had a perfect opportunity to brandish their credentials as title contenders against the New York Giants, the current Super Bowl holders.
Instead the Giants schooled Arizona 37-29 behind 269 all-purpose yards from Domenik Hixon, whose kick returns repeatedly put New York in prime field position. Hixon's star turn made up for the absence due to injury of the Giants' leading rusher, Brandon Jacobs, and the leading receiver Plaxico Burress, who played only one series. The game had the feel of a heavyweight prize fight. The Arizona fans and both teams' players were charged up, feeling the significance of the match.
The Giant defence harassed Kurt Warner throughout, and bottled up Arizona's rushers. While Warner again threw for 300-plus yards (351), his completion percentage of 62 per cent was well below his average entering the game of 71 per cent. He also fumbled and threw an interception. "Anytime you play a team of this calibre, you cannot turn the ball over," the Cardinals defender Bertrand Berry said later.
"You can't give them a short field to score points. There's no mystery why they're 10-1 right now. They're playing at a high level, and we just didn't make enough plays." Arizona, now 7-4, enjoy a four-game lead in the sickly NFC West and can secure a play-off spot with a win on Thursday over the reeling Philadelphia Eagles. The Cardinals are 4-0 against the sob sisters of their division but only 3-4 against the rest of the league.
They appear on track to fulfilling a prophecy delivered by The Washington Post's Norman Chad in his season preview: "The Cardinals were the best 8-8 team in the NFL last season. "I am confident they can become the worst 10-6 team in the NFL this season." The Giants are the class of the National conference. But the American conference is muddled. The unexciting Tennessee Titans were 10-0 entering this week but gave comfort to their doubters as they were manhandled 34-13 by the New York Jets, winners of five in a row. Normally a disciplined team, the Titans took four penalties for pass interference to sustain New York drives. Brett Favre threw for two touchdowns and only one interception.
While Tennessee stumbled, its conference rivals - other than the Jets, the list includes Indianapolis, New England and Pittsburgh - were rounding into form. Indianapolis defeated its nemesis San Diego 23-20 as Adam Vinatieri booted a 51-yard field goal at game's end. The Colts have won four straight. Matt Cassel passed for 415 yards - his second straight game with more than 400 - as New England flew past Miami 48-28. The Patriots' Randy Moss is dangerous again, catching eight balls for 125 yards and three scores.
And Pittsburgh's speedy defence cloistered Cincinnati 27-10 in a Thursday game. firstname.lastname@example.org