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WINS HAVEN'T BEEN IN THE CARDS FOR ARIZONA <br> FRANCHISE'S STRUGGLE <br> PARALLELS THAT OF BILLS

The Arizona Cardinals have been associated with bad football for most of their existence, which began in Chicago in 1920. That is what happens when you've had just one winning season over the last 20 years.

But before you laugh at the Cardinals' legacy of mediocrity, consider this:

The Bills haven't been much better lately.

The Bills and Cardinals have identical 18-36 records since 2001. Their 18 wins are tied with the Cincinnati Bengals for the second fewest over that span. Only the Detroit Lions (14) are worse.

The Bills haven't had a winning season since 1999, which also was the last time they made the playoffs. The Cardinals haven't finished above .500 since going 9-7 in 1998, the year of their last playoff appearance and their only postseason win in 56 years.

Bills fans probably had a win over the Cardinals penciled in when they saw the schedule before the season. But keep the eraser handy because Arizona (2-4) will be anything but a sure "W" when it invades Ralph Wilson Stadium on Sunday.

After losing their first three games, the Cardinals have won two of their last three and are coming off an impressive 25-17 win over the Seattle Seahawks.

The Cardinals have lost 16 consecutive road games since 2002, but the average margin of their three road losses this season is 4.3 points.

Although the Bills are a 3-point favorite, coach Mike Mularkey said he shouldn't have to remind his players that these aren't the same old Cardinals.

"All you have to do is throw the tape on, and no matter what I say they're going to see this team is playing hard," he said. "Their bye week (prior to the Seattle game), they went back and retooled a little bit. I just see a different team. They're playing with more confidence, at a faster tempo. They're playing more physical. They're playing with more high emotion. I don't think there's any team you can take lightly in this league. Not for a second."

The Cardinals' front office has been blamed for the franchise's woeful history. Draft picks, most of them high first-rounders, turned into busts, and frugal ownership refused to go after top free agents. The team also has made some dubious coaching hires.

But the Cardinals may have finally done something right by luring coach Dennis Green out of his two-year retirement. Green revived college programs at Stanford and Northwestern, and built the Minnesota Vikings into a consistent winner.

In 10 seasons in Minnesota, Green guided the Vikings to a 101-70 overall record (4-8 in the playoffs), eight playoff berths, four NFC Central Division titles and two NFC Championship Games.

Green hopes to have similar success in Arizona. But first, he must eradicate the losing culture that permeates the franchise.

"I think teams don't win because initially they don't do things on the field that teams that win do," Green said. "We won at San Francisco and Minnesota not because we had superior talent, but we did things that winning teams do. We do that first, then worry about winning later."

It appears the Cardinals are grasping Green's message. Although the defense ranks near the bottom of the NFL in most categories, the Cardinals lead the league with 18 takeaways and are the best at stopping teams in the red zone (only five touchdowns allowed in 21 possessions).

The offense hasn't been very productive, but it has potential. Green decided against drafting a quarterback and gave the job to third-year pro Josh McCown, who impressed while starting the last three games in 2003. The team doesn't ask McCown to win games, just not to lose them. While he lacks great numbers, he's done a good job limiting his mistakes.

Green is excited about his talented young wide receivers -- Anquan Boldin, a 2003 Pro Bowler and Offensive Rookie of the Year, and Larry Fitzgerald, Arizona's first-round pick in April's draft. Boldin missed the first six games with a knee injury but is expected to play Sunday. Fitzgerald has come on in recent weeks, making the kind of plays expected of the third overall draft pick.

The Cardinals also have a future Hall of Famer in the backfield in Emmitt Smith, the NFL's all-time leading rusher.

"I'm very encouraged," Smith said. "I think (the team's attitude) has already changed. The way I see it, this organization has one direction to go, and that's up."

The Bills feel the same way about themselves. Like the Cardinals, the Bills are still trying to find a way to break their habit of losing.

"What you do is you try to breed an environment of positives," said Bills quarterback Drew Bledsoe. "You try to go forward with a very positive attitude: 'OK, this is what we have to do to win.' We're not focused on the negative is what I'm saying. We're focused on the positive going forward."

BIRDS OF A FEATHER
Bills Cards
2004 record 1-5 2-4
Record since 2001 18-36 18-36
Playoff seasons last 45 years 17 4
Playoff wins last 45 years 14 1

e-mail: awilson@buffnews.com

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