No big deal, Arizona Cardinals. You just have to unseat one of both of last year's NFC Championship combatants if you're going to make the playoffs in 2014.
The Cardinals did well to finish 10-6 last year, but their success also demonstrated how hard it is in the NFC West for both themselves and the St. Louis Rams. The San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks set the bar so high that third place is almost the pinnacle of expectations.
However, Arizona may spring a surprise this coming year. It has one of the best defenses in the league, even after the departure of Karlos Dansby.
Signing Jared Veldheer was a great move, as he is the pass-protector the team needed so desperately in order to keep Carson Palmer upright and away from pressure.
Palmer is entrenched as the starter, while Stanton and Lindley are both under contract for next season. There is no one on the free agent market who moves the needle, and coach Bruce Arians has reiterated several times this offseason that Palmer will be his guy and that Stanton is a capable No. 2. The Cardinals could look for more of a long-term option in the draft, but they are not expected to be active in the quarterback market of free agency.
Everything the Cardinals have done this season has arguably moved the team forward, and head coach Bruce Arians isn't hesitant to embrace higher expectations in 2014. He's talking Super Bowl already, per Darren Urban of AZCardinals.com:
I ain’t afraid of it. We played well at the end of the season. If we can do that early, the confidence of the core of the team is back. Our leadership is back. We are talented enough. Talent is not the issue. I told them that last year but they didn’t believe me until it was too late. There is no reason we can’t be the first team to play a home Super Bowl. Absolutely no reason.
Looking at the team's 2014 regular-season schedule, Arizona will have plenty of opportunities to present itself as a member of the elite.
|2014 Arizona Cardinals Regular-Season Schedule|
|Week||Opponent||Time (ET)||TV Info|
|1||vs. San Diego Chargers||10:20 p.m.||ESPN|
|2||at New York Giants||1 p.m.||Fox|
|3||vs. San Francisco 49ers||4:05 p.m.||Fox|
|5||at Denver Broncos||4:05 p.m.||Fox|
|6||vs. Washington Redskins||4:25 p.m.||Fox|
|7||at Oakland Raiders||4:25 p.m.||Fox|
|8||vs. Philadelphia Eagles||4:05 p.m.||Fox|
|9||at Dallas Cowboys||1 p.m.||Fox|
|10||vs. St. Louis Rams||4:25 p.m.||Fox|
|11||vs. Detroit Lions||4:25 p.m.||Fox|
|12||at Seattle Seahawks||4:05 p.m.||Fox|
|13||at Atlanta Falcons||4:05 p.m.||Fox|
|14||vs. Kansas City Chiefs||4:05 p.m.||CBS|
|15||at St. Louis Rams||8:25 p.m.||NFL Network|
|16||vs. Seattle Seahawks||8:30 p.m.||NBC|
|17||at San Francisco 49ers||4:25 p.m.||Fox|
Arizona was bound to get hit hard simply by virtue of playing the Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers each twice. They're two of the best teams in the league, so the Cardinals are locked into playing four games against some of the toughest opposition possible.
Not really a good start.
The NFC West as a division faces off against the AFC West. In that regard, the Cardinals got a mixed bag. They play the Denver Broncos on the road, which is the worst-case scenario. Making things a little easier, the San Diego Chargers and Kansas City Chiefs will be making the trip to the University of Phoenix Stadium. Getting the Oakland Raiders on the road means dodging a possible bullet as well.
It goes without saying that the Cardinals will need to perform well against their division opponents. Neither the Seahawks nor the 49ers look like they'll lose many games, so being one of the teams to knock them off could put Arizona near the top of the NFC West standings.
The real key for the Cardinals will be doing enough to at least earn a wild-card berth. Upending both San Francisco and Seattle will be almost impossible, given how much would have to fall in place to make that happen, so finishing second or third in the division should be the real goal.
That's where home games against the Detroit Lions and Washington Redskins and road games against the Atlanta Falcons, Dallas Cowboys and New York Giants come in. Any combination of those five teams could be vying for a wild-card spot in the NFC.
The Falcons will be much better than they were last season, given the amount of injuries and bad luck they ran into. The Lions are unlikely to suffer the same late-season collapse that became a staple of the Jim Schwartz era, and the NFC East is such a grab bag that the Cowboys, Giants and Redskins could all be terrible just as easily as they could be playoff contenders.
Any of those teams could be in that 9-7 to 11-5 range that's generally the cutoff for wild-card teams. For Arizona to go 4-1 or even 3-2 in that group of games could be huge.
Those five matchups will likely determine the Cardinals' season.