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Arizona Cardinals rebranding themselves with wins and presence

Arizona Cardinals are no longer the NFL's unlovable losers

— No one is undefeated in the NFL, although four teams have just one loss: Denver, Philadelphia, Dallas and Arizona.

The Broncos have Peyton Manning, the league's only five-time most valuable player who has thrown more touchdown passes than anyone in NFL history.

The Eagles have the fascinating Chip Kelly, who has challenged the conventional wisdom of coaching, weaving the best of college football into the pros.

The Cowboys have more than their share of attention magnets — Jerry Jones, Tony Romo and now record-breaking runner DeMarco Murray.

And … there are the Cardinals.

Typically, Arizona is grinding along under the radar in a place where there's far more sunlight than spotlight. The sports world has barely taken notice of the Cardinals, who have won 10 of their past 12 games as everyone waits for the other cleat to drop and for their winning ways to dissipate like a highway mirage.

But for those who think this 5-1 team will crash to earth, possibly as soon as Sunday, when it plays host to the 5-1 Eagles, keep in mind these are not your father's Arizona Cardinals — and they aren't the Cardinals of Michael Bidwill's father, either.

The Bidwill family has owned the Cardinals since 1933, when the team played in Chicago, and Michael took over day-to-day operations of the club in 2007 from his father, Bill. Once among the NFL's least successful and cheapest franchises, the Cardinals are well on their way to completely rebranding themselves.

"What we want to build is something that year in and year out has sustained success," Michael Bidwill said. "I don't think you can just take a snapshot at a given point and say, 'We're finally there.' … We're always looking to the next Sunday."

Sunday will mark the 89th consecutive sellout of University of Phoenix Stadium, which opened in 2006. In 18 seasons at Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe, the Cardinals sold out 12 games — and seven of those were when the Dallas Cowboys came to town.

The franchise has seen a 30% jump in local television ratings since 2013, the league's largest increase.

"It's fun to be a part of it," said second-year Coach Bruce Arians, whose team finished 10-6 last season and narrowly missed making the playoffs. "It's like when I was in Indianapolis in 1998 and Peyton [Manning] came. It has that same feel. Everywhere you go around town, you see more Cardinal flags, Cardinal hats, Cardinal jerseys."

That's a huge change for a franchise that was once treated like an afterthought at best in its hometown. Cardinals General Manager Steve Keim, who has been with the organization for 16 years, vividly remembers the years this town was painted anything but red.

"I'll never forget, we went to a Walmart, and we saw a person with a Cardinal hat," Keim said. "We all freaked out. 'There's a Cardinal fan! Dude, there's a Cardinal fan!' At the end of the day, he probably got that hat at a supermarket in a free giveaway. But we all freaked out because we saw someone wearing our apparel in town. That's dead serious.

"Now, wherever you go, the apparel's everywhere. Quite frankly, that's probably one of the most rewarding things I've seen over the years of working for this organization, seeing the difference in our fan base."

Success came quickly for the Cardinals after they opened their new stadium in 2006. They played host to a Super Bowl in 2007, and played in a Super Bowl in 2008. They subsequently regressed, changed coaches, and now — as they are poised to host another Super Bowl this season — are ascending again.

Keim called Bidwill "the glue that holds the organization together," and quarterback Carson Palmer agreed, saying that's who planted the seeds for the turnaround.

"It's easy to say it's the head coach or the GM. It's the owner," Palmer said. "And you would never know it. He doesn't want to be here when the media's here. He's not doing interviews left and right, but he's picked the right people to hire and he wants to win. … He doesn't have a hand in every decision, cutting this guy, bringing in this guy. He's hired the right people, and he knows it."

The defining characteristic of this season's team has been how well second- and third-stringers have filled in for more established players who are unavailable because of injury, suspension, or are no longer with the team.

When Palmer was sidelined with a nerve injury in his shoulder, Drew Stanton stepped in and helped the team to victories over the New York Giants and San Francisco 49ers. Stanton hadn't thrown a pass in a game since 2010.

The team's leading tackler is 34-year-old linebacker Larry Foote, who was signed to be a backup but was pressed into duty after Daryl Washington was suspended for the season.

The Cardinals cut longtime kicker Jay Feeley and handed those duties to undrafted rookie Chandler Catanzaro, who is 15 of 15 on field goals.

"That next-man-up mantra is what everybody preaches, but not everybody has it," said Palmer, who returned in Week 6 and is 10-2 in his last 12 starts. "Here, it's been illustrated. It's been proven. It's going to come up again, and this team believes it can do it. We've all been through it."

Arians is the ideal pitchman for that philosophy because he has lived it. He was the next man up in Indianapolis when Coach Chuck Pagano had to go on hiatus after being diagnosed with a treatable form of leukemia. Arians was appointed interim coach of that 2012 Colts team, led it to the playoffs and won NFL coach-of-the-year honors.

Separated by a generation, Keim, 42, and Arians, 62, grew up about 12 miles apart in central Pennsylvania, the heart of steel country.

"We're just two blue-collar Pennsylvania kids," Keim said. "He and I talk about it all the time. We live about 500 yards from each other. He's on one side of the golf course, I'm on the other. And on the way driving in to work, the sun's bright and shining, there are palm trees everywhere, and here are these two kids from York County just living out our dream. How amazing is that?"

They could be father and son, both former college players — Arians a quarterback at Virginia Tech, Keim a guard at North Carolina State — both hulking and both bald. Running a hand over his smooth scalp, Keim jokes it's because they both grew up near Three Mile Island.

But Keim invokes another place when describing the Cardinals, a once-maligned organization filled with next-man-up no names and castoffs who have come together as a team.

"We're like the island of misfit toys," he said.

And at the moment, that's just this side of paradise.

sam.farmer@latimes.com

Twitter: @LATimesfarmer

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