2012 Arizona Cardinals Preview: Road to the Playoffs, Key Games to Watch

Mike May@@SB_MikeMayContributor IAugust 3, 2012

Can Arizona return to the postseason?
Can Arizona return to the postseason?Mark J. Rebilas-US PRESSWIRE

The Arizona Cardinals come into the 2012 NFL season now two years removed from their last division title and playoff appearance. Taking a different approach, I wanted to break down the key games throughout the season that would greatly improve the odds off the Cards returning to the postseason—as a wildcard, at least, if nothing else. Here's what I came up with.

Obviously, the best way to do it would be to win the division. If the Cards can't take the NFC West, though, they'll have stiff competition for the two remaining wild-card spots. This is subject to change since we haven't yet reached the preseason, but let's assume our division winners this season are 49ers" target="_blank">San Fransisco, Green Bay, the New York Giants and the Atlanta Falcons.

In my opinion, that would leave the Detroit Lions, Chicago Bears, Dallas Cowboys and New Orleans Saints battling it out with Arizona for the wild-card spots. Also in the conversation are the Carolina Panthers and Seattle Seahawks. (Sorry Rams and Eagles, I'm not a buyer yet.)

Out of those opponents, Arizona faces Seattle twice, and Detroit and Chicago once. In any tight wild-card race, it's good to look at these factors: overall record, head-to-head, division record and conference record.

If the Cards can win the following games on their schedule, I'm confident they can secure a wild-card spot—even with a 9-7 finish. This is a tough, but winnable stretch if this team has progressed since last season.

Take care of your backyard first. The Seahawks and the Rams should both be improved, so while this won't be easy, these are still a very winnable four games for the Cards. Let's add a Monday Night Football win over the San Fransisco 49ers to go 5-1 in the division. This is key not only as far as wild-card tiebreakers are concerned, but also because of the difficulty of the Cards' schedule outside of the division.

Circle the Lions, Bears and Eagles as the three other key games. Detroit and Chicago both figure to be very good this season, and maybe even capable of challenging Green Bay for the division. These are back-to-back games in December.

Thankfully they're at home, and in December. While I have the Eagles right around the 7-9 range this season, they're still very capable of being in the mix at the end. This would be a good team to take care of business against early in the season.

These seven games would give Arizona a 5-1 division record. That also would put them at seven wins with winnable games against Miami, Buffalo, Minnesota and the Jets.

While we still have a preseason and an evaluation process ahead, circle these games on the calendar, folks. Either way, they'll play a big role in determining whether or not Arizona can make a return to the postseason in 2012.

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