**EDIT** Following a week 13 defeat to the Rams, Most of this article is now depreciated**EDIT**
We are preparing to enter Week 13 of the NFL. The home stretch, the final push.
In most divisions, the hunt for the division title is now a two-horse race, a matter of which hitherto inseparable team can hold their nerve until the final minutes. It is shaping up to be a fascinating final few weeks.
And then there is the NFC West.
For a long time considered the worst division in the NFL, the Cardinals, Seahawks, Rams and 49ers have really taken that to heart in 2010.
No NFC West team has a winning record. None have a positive points differential either.
And yet, somehow, all of this has conspired to make this one of the most interesting, if ultimately insignificant, divisional battles in recent memory. The chances of any NFC West team making the Super Bowl are astronomical, but the race to get to the playoffs is really shaping up to be something.
After all, top and bottom are separated by just two games, all four teams remain in contention to take the crown, and for the first time in NFL history, it is really possible, perhaps even likely, that a team will enter the NFL postseason with a loosing record.
Currently, the Arizona Cardinals sit at the bottom of the NFC West, with a dismal 3-8 record. With five games remaining, and just two games back, in spite of the odds, the Cardinals somehow remain in the hunt for a playoff spot.
What a difference a year can make.
Just 12 months ago, the reigning NFC champion Arizona Cardinals had a three-game cushion over nearest rivals, San Francisco, heading into Week 13.
The Cardinals would not technically clinch until Week 15, but for the Arizona players, staff and fans, there was a lot to be hopeful about. By the end of Week 12 everything was falling into place for the Arizona Cardinals to win their second straight divisional title.
The Cardinals looked good, and though their playoff run would ultimately end with a 45-14 drubbing by the New Orleans Saints, when it came to closing out the season, Arizona really held all of the cards.
Like I said, what a difference a year can make.
In 2010, the Cardinals find themselves in the unfortunate situation of not even controlling their own destiny. Even a perfect record to close out the season does not assure them of making the playoffs—far from it, they are still reliant on other teams to beat their divisional rivals.
A lot has been written about how the Cardinals found themselves here. Whether because of key losses in personnel, poor coaching and play-calling, lack of focus or just plain bad luck, the fact remains, 3-8 with five games to play is where they find themselves.
What they must now focus on is how they can rescue the season, unusual talk for this point in the season, but the fates have given them one last shot. The Cardinals must now capitalize on it.
The Arizona Cardinals are two games back on both the Rams and Seahawks, and one back on the 49ers.
The Cardinals need at least three wins to be in contention.
The worst they can hope to qualify is 6-10, but doing so relies on an awful lot falling their way. Cardinals can only top the division at 6-10 if the Rams and Seahawks tie their final game of the season, and at least one of them ties with the 49ers.
It also relies on the Seahawks and Rams not winning another game, and the Niners winning only against the divisional rival they do not tie with.
At best, the Cardinals can finish 8-8 and then need more than a few things to fall their way elsewhere in the division if they are to go through.
You're right, it's not particularly inspiring odds, but, they are enough to keep the Cardinals in the hunt, and right now, those are odds I'll take.
For the Cardinals, one of their key games takes place this Sunday, when they face the Rams.
This game really counts for the Cardinals, because a win guarantees that they will draw within one game of the Rams.
There are a few things in the Cardinals favor. For one, they are still only two games back and have five games remaining, three of them at home.
Two of their games are against divisional rivals, which means those wins count double when it comes to closing the gap. The Cardinals face the Rams next, and the 49ers to close out the season.
There is more. The five remaining teams the Cardinals will play all have loosing records.
The Cardinals play three teams outside of the NFC West, but all three have records which are worse, or equally as bad as their own. This includes one game against the Carolina Panthers, who currently sit at the bottom of the NFL, and, barring a miracle, will stay there. Indeed, the Panthers may just tank that game in order to keep first overall pick in next year's draft.
Of the five remaining teams the Cardinals will play, they have combined to win only 16 games between them, and more than a few of those have come against each other
This is good. Four or five wins is not only possible, but given the weakness of the schedule, likely.
As previously mentioned, even five wins does not guarantee Arizona a playoff berth. Three wins by either the Seahawks or Rams, or four by the 49ers leave the Cardinals with no hope.
Because the Seahawks and Rams play one another in the last regular season game, barring an unlikely tie, one of these teams will get at least one more win, meaning the Cardinals really need to aim for no fewer than four wins out of the remaining five.
And while the Cardinals can be responsible for handing the Rams and 49ers some of their requisite losses to remain in contention, the Seahawks have already beaten the Cardinals twice, and the Cardinals must rely completely on others to keep them in contention.
There is more bad news. The Seahawks and Rams not only play each other, but both play the 49ers. Since someone will more than likely win these games too, relying on three games to end in ties would be hoping beyond hope. One of our rivals is guaranteed wins.
Let's be fair, any situation where you don't control your own destiny is tough. Relying on other failures is not the way the Cards want to win a divisional title, especially not when they have only managed a couple of lucky wins themselves to this point.
But it is the hand they have been dealt, and you can only play the cards you hold.
If the Cardinals hope to make the payoffs, three things need to happen. These are:
1: Win enough remaining games: Probability: Good to middling.
The Cards certainly appear to have the inside track heading into the home stretch. On the basis of recent form, it's hard to say any game will be easy, but on balance, the Cards have the ability to win. The amount of games they need to win depends on other results, and affects the likelihood of the Cardinals succeeding.
Three wins is quite possible, but extremely unlikely to see them through. Five is a lot more difficult, and still leaves them relying on others to win the division.
2. The 49ers lose at least two games: Probability: Good to middling.
The Niners do not have an easy schedule from here on out. The Cardinals can be responsible for one of their losses, but there are more than a few others who can also hand them that defeat too. Losing both games still means the Cardinals would need five wins, so ideally, the Cards need them to lose one more. It becomes difficult because the Cardinals also want them to beat the Rams and Seahawks.
3: Both the Rams and Seahawks lose at least three games each: Probability: Pretty slim.
The Rams and Seahawks play one another, which means one of them will, barring a tie, get at least one win. They also have schedules which favor them in at least a couple of their remaining games. Three losses, out of four games (remembering that one of the teams will get a win when they face each other) is not impossible for either team, but unlikely none the less.
Let's put it in perspective.
In and of themselves, none of these things are impossible. I would take a guess that chances are at least one of the things the Cards need will happen.
Unfortunately, the Cardinals need all three to happen to stand a chance at all, and, the chances of all three coming to pass is an outside shot at best.
If the Cardinals do make it to the playoffs, they will have luck, not skill to thank.
The Cardinals need to keep playing until the season ends. They have the skill and talent to win games and could easily climb one or two places in the division.
To rule them out altogether is to underestimate how weak the other NFC West teams have been, but at best the Cardinals can hope for a climb to second in the division.
This week will be telling for the Cardinals. If this week ends with losses for the Rams, Seahawks and 49ers, then the Cardinals' chances improve significantly, and if the Cardinals loose to the Rams, they plummet to practically impossible.
The NFC West will surely work itself out within the next few weeks, and, as early as Sunday, is likely to be a whole lot clearer. One thing is for certain, we're all in for one heck of a ride.