(NBCSPORTS.com) - The Cardinals' defense these past two weeks has left many of us rubbing our eyes, squinting and taking another look.
Our minds are telling us their defense is an oasis in the desert - surely a mirage. But our eyes keep saying something else.
What is clear is that this isn't the same Cardinals defense that we saw for most of the season.
During the regular season, the Cardinals had the NFL's 19th ranked defense. They allowed 26.6 points per game. Only four teams gave up more points.
But in the last leg of the season, the defense unraveled. It allowed 35 or more points in four of their last six games. In two of those games, it gave up 970 yards and 82 points to the Vikings and Patriots.
And it was the best thing that could have happened to Arizona. "The one thing we felt we were missing with our football team was that kind of leadership," Cardinals general manager Rod Graves said. "We made a huge step towards that kind of leadership rearing its head over the last several weeks. It came about in the time of adversity coming out of the Minnesota, New England game. Guys started stepping up and taking the bull by the horns."
On defense, linebacker Karlos Dansby, safety Adrian Wilson and defensive end Antonio Smith stepped up and demanded accountability from teammates, according to Graves.
In two playoff games, the Cardinals have allowed 8.1 points per game fewer than the regular season. They also have given up 42.7 fewer rushing yards per game. What's more, in the postseason they lead the league in interceptions with seven and sacks with five.
One thing this defense has been good at all along is forcing turnovers. Their 30 takeaways tied for fifth most in the regular season.
"They are a defense that really thrives on turnovers," said former 49ers offensive coordinator Mike Martz. "They've always gotten turnovers. They've always given up some yards rushing. But when they get turnovers they come in gobs."
The key for the Cardinals getting takeaways has been the front four. It isn't the most talented group of pass rushers or run stuffers, but it is a unit that wreaks havoc through hustle.
"They do a really good job up front," Martz says. "I really like their front. Their whole front is really active. They play as hard as anybody in the league. They are relentless."
The most indispensable player is defensive tackle Darnell Dockett, who unfortunately may be mostly famous for the horsy ride he took on Smith during a celebration after a safety against the Falcons. Dockett plays with great intensity and complements his quickness with strength at the point.
Because Dockett, Smith and others play so hard, the Cardinals can apply pressure with four players. "That's the difference between this year and past years," Martz said. "In past years they had to do all kinds of things to try to get pressure. Now they can play a defense, rush four and put pressure on you."
And the Cardinals secondary is ready, willing and able to take advantage of any bad throws that may come about as a result of the pressure.
First round pick Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie was a contender for NFL defensive rookie of the year, and he might have won it if the vote had been taken after the playoffs. Against the Panthers, the cornerback had an interception, a tipped pass that led to another interception and four passes defended - while covering Steve Smith.
"He is an outstanding talent and an outstanding character person," Graves said.
Rodgers-Cromartie is just what the Cardinals defense needed to get them over the top.
More on Arizona Cardinals | NFL playoffs
Q: Will Plaxico Burress be with the Giants next season? - Kevin Hartlaub, Lansing, Mich.
A: Giants general manager Jerry Reese has raised the possibility, which was stunning to some. So there certainly is a possibility. I'm not sure I am ready to call it a probability yet. The Giants need to go through a process in which they weigh all of their options with Burress.
It still would not be surprising if they came to the conclusion they were better off without him. If they do part ways with Burress, though, they know he will be difficult to replace. There just aren't many players like him in the NFL.
Q: Hey Dan, do you think Edgerrin James will end up in the Hall of Fame? - Brad, Carmel, Ind.
A: My initial inclination would be to say he will be under consideration but might have a tough time getting in. James was never the reason the Colts were a great offense, and the Colts replaced him easily.
But we shouldn't penalize him just because he played on the same team as Peyton Manning. He led the league in rushing twice and has been a Pro Bowler four times. We'll see where he ends up on the all-time rushing list.
Q: Can you tell me what offensive holding is? Every week I see guys holding jerseys and pulling the player but holding is not called. What has to happen for a holding call to be made? - Dan Wilson, Westminster, Md.
A: The saying you could call holding on every play has some truth to it. But holding usually only is called in blatant circumstances. If a blocker gets his hands outside the defenders shoulders, that's usually an automatic call. If a blocker takes down a pass rusher in space, that often is called holding. Holding calls aren't always consistent because it is a difficult rule to legislate.
Q: What happens to unused salary cap money in the NFL? - Dick Boockmeier, Portage, Wisc.
A: Nothing, because it doesn't exist. It's not like every team is sitting on a pile of money they use for the salary cap every year. There is a difference between cash and cap space. The cap is just the maximum amount of cash a team can spend. And you can't carry it over until the next year.