In 2011, the 8-8 Arizona Cardinals finished the year as a perfectly average team in a perfectly average division. The 49ers went 13-3 in Jim Harbaugh's first year and finally graduated to a level of play that was more befitting of the roster's talent. The Seahawks went 7-9 and were ready to make a coaching change. The Rams went 2-14 and were ready to do the same.
Since then, the Cardinals might feel like a middle school athlete waiting for a growth spurt while everyone else grows an inch a week. The 49ers and Seahawks have become two of the best teams in football, finding young stars at quarterback in the process. The Rams have become more talented through a glut of premium draft picks, even as they remain inconsistent.
Going into Thursday's game with Seattle, the Cardinals are 1-7 against NFC West teams since the start of 2012. They are 0-2 in 2013, with a close loss to St. Louis and a game that was close for most of the way against San Francisco on Sunday.
Although the Cardinals might be an improved team, the local company in the NFC West is getting in the way.
But make no mistake: They are an improved team, and I see several reasons for optimism as well as some thoughts about where they'll need to focus their offseason energy.