Arizona Cardinals Remain in the Hunt: How Can Cards Make Miracle Playoff Run?

Luke Bunger@LukeHBCardsCorrespondent IIIDecember 22, 2011

Arizona Cardinals Remain in the Hunt: How Can Cards Make Miracle Playoff Run?

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    The Arizona Cardinals kept their hopes of a miraculous playoff run alive, as they rallied to defeat the Cleveland Browns in overtime. 

    It may not have been pretty, it may have required a few lucky bounces along the way, but, a win is a win, and when it keeps you in the hunt for that NFC Wild Card spot, it's all the more sweet.

    The game was closely fought throughout, and—as far as complete performances go—was hardly one of the Cardinals best, but, once again, John Skelton showed his Tebow-esque ability to turn things around late in the game and led the Cardinals on the fifth game-winning drive of his young career.

    Results elsewhere in the league appeared all to be going the Cardinals way, with the Seahawks beating the Chicago Bears and the Oakland Raiders leading against the Lions late into the fourth quarter.

    However, a last-minute touchdown drive with less than a minute remaining in the game handed the Lions the victory, and the Cardinals a much steeper hill to climb to make the playoffs.

    In this slideshow, we will look at what must happen for the Cardinals to clinch either the fifth or sixth place in the NFC, which would earn them a wild-card berth.

    Unlike most people, writing this sort of thing, I am not going to assume the Atlanta Falcons are going to get at least one of the spots. In fact, I'm not assuming anything any more.

    After all, this is the NFL, where the previously undefeated Green Bay Packers lost to the Kansas City Chiefs, the Indianapolis Colts threatened to derail their run at the "Suck for Luck" sweepstakes by beating the AFC Wild Card contender Tennessee Titans and the Arizona Cardinals, who started the season 1-6, are now still in the hunt for the NFC Wild Card spot with two games to play.

    So, without further ado, here is a breakdown of what has to happen for the Cardinals to make the playoffs.

Phase One: Win out the Season

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    Without a doubt, the Cardinals need their fair share of lucky bounces to make the playoffs, but this first stage is completely in their own hands.

    The Cardinals (7-7) simply cannot make the playoffs with anything less than a 9-7 record, as both the Atlanta Falcons and Detroit Lions already have nine wins this season.

    The Cardinals are now on a four-game winning streak, which has seen them knock off playoff hopefuls the Dallas Cowboys and division champions the San Francisco 49ers, so two more wins is not out of the question. However, fans who think their upcoming games are a gimme, simply haven't paid close enough attention.

    The Cardinals next game sees them travel to Cincinnati to face a Bengals team whose own playoff hopes are still far from secure. Although the Bengals could remain statistically alive following a loss to the Cardinals—depending of course what happens elsewhere in the AFC—anyone expecting Andy Dalton, A.J. Green and co. to take it easy on the Cardinals and let up the pressure are kidding themselves.

    The Cardinals are away from home, traveling east, places where West Coast teams often struggle, and traveling there without a clear picture of which QB will start hardly bodes well for the team either. However, the Cardinals will likely be unusually inspired by the prospect of winning five games in a row for the first time in 34 years. That's not a typo—even during the heady heights of their NFC championship season in 2008, the Cardinals didn't manage to string together a run of five back-to-back regular season wins.

    The game is not a given, but the Cardinals will be motivated, so a win could very much be—you'll pardon the pun—on the Cards.

    However, assuming the Cardinals beat the Bengals, things don't get much easier for their final game of the season on New Year's Day.

    In Week 17, the Cardinals will look to atone for a tough loss to the Seattle Seahawks earlier in the season. The Seahawks may be eliminated from playoff contention by this point if they lose to the San Francisco 49ers this week—a much harder game to win than the Cardinals own Week 16 matchup. However, if you expect that to dent their resolve, then unfortunately, you're kidding yourself.

    Win or lose against the 49ers, the Seahawks will have everything to play for against the Cardinals. If they win (and everything else falls into place) they will be playing for a shot at an NFC Wild Card spot. Losing to the Niners and beating the Cardinals are just as important—after all, if you can't make the playoffs yourself, knocking off your division rival is the next best thing. A win against the Cardinals would also give the Seahawks the second spot in the NFC West, on tiebreakers.

    However, the Cardinals almost managed to beat the Seahawks in Week 3, and the team looks much improved today, so it also stands a real chance at home against the Seahawks.

    Assuming that the Cardinals win out the season, they're home free, right? Not so fast there. Winning out isn't enough. The Cardinals also need their fair share of lucky bounces along the way, as we shall see. 

Phase Two, Option A: Lions Lose out the Season

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    This is—by far—the most likely scenario for the Cardinals. But don't hold out too much hope of even that.

    In the last two weeks of the season, the Lions face a resurgent San Diego Chargers team that's own playoff hopes rely on winning out the season and a Green Bay Packers side that has looked practically unbeatable this season.

    Unfortunately for the Cardinals, a single win against either team makes life much more difficult for them.

    The Lions have struggled in recent weeks, almost losing to the Oakland Raiders last week, while the Chargers have looked, once again, like the team that started the season 4-1, not the team that came out of its bye week with six straight losses. So the Chargers have a good chance to win this one.

    And then there are the Green Bay Packers.

    Coming into last weeks game, it seemed that a 16-0 season was all but inevitable. While no one in the organization would officially acknowledge the possibility, the Packers reluctance to rest their starters, even following some high-profile injuries, seemed to suggest that, for the Packers, anything short of perfection simply wouldn't do.

    Then along came the Kansas City Chiefs, who ended that dream. Now, a single win against the Bears guarantees the Packers' the No. 1 seed, and since there isn't really a difference, when it comes to the history books, between 15-1 and 14-2, it's hard to imagine that the Packers won't rest at least some of their starters.

    It is possible, of course, that the Packers will lose to the Bears in Week 16 and will have more inspiration to beat the Lions, but don't start cheering for the Bears just yet, because a Chicago win brings more issues for the Cardinals (see Phase Three). 

    However, if the Lions lose out the season, then the Cardinals' hopes stay alive.

Phase Two, Option B: Falcons Lose out the Season

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    Assuming the Lions grab a win against either the Chargers or Packers—a definite possibility—the Cardinals hopes lay with the Atlanta Falcons—or rather, with their opponents. 

    For the Cardinals to stand any chance, either the Falcons or Lions must lose out the season. And if the Lions losing out felt like a long shot, then I apologize in advance—the Falcons schedule isn't going to make you feel any better at all.

    In the closing weeks of the season, the Falcons travel to New Orleans to face a Saints team that has already secured a playoff spot and are visited by a Tampa Bay Buccaneers team that has only one road win all season, and has lost its last eight games.

    While the Saints will not be an easy team to beat—seeding, and even a possible first-week bye are still in play for the Saints—the Buccaneers are as close to a gimme as the NFL has.

    Of course, there is no such thing as an easy win—as the Tennessee Titans discovered at the hands of the Indianapolis Colts—but an on-fire Falcons team, with playoff hopes, is not likely to underestimate the Bucs, and, since the Falcons hold their future in their own hands, it's hard to imagine too many missteps here.

    Unfortunately, the Cardinals best hope here appears to be unforeseen injuries to more than one key player, or an unimaginable last-minute turnaround for the Buccaneers, but, well, let's not hold our breath.

Phase Three: Hope Chicago Bears Drop at Least One Game

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    Unfortunately for the Cardinals, even if the Lions or Falcons lose out the season, the Cardinals are still not home free.

    The Chicago Bears have their own playoff dreams, and will be trying to win out the season themselves in order to have a chance at a wild-card spot and playoff glory.

    If the Bears win out the season, like the Cardinals, they will have a 9-7 record. And then comes the dreaded NFL tiebreak scenarios. In these circumstances, the Bears best the Cardinals based on win percentage in the conference.

    A single loss by the Bears eliminates them from contention—a very good thing—and as we have previously mentioned, the Bears square off against the Packers in Green Bay in Week 16, which will be a tough game by anyone's standards.

    But there is a dilemma for the Cardinals. 

    If the Packers beat the Bears in Week 16 then Green Bay has nothing left to play for in their final week—a problem for the Cardinals, who are relying on the Packers playing to win in Week 17 against the Lions.

    If the Bears beat the Packers and the 49ers beat the Seahawks, then the Packers will have to play to win against the Lions, or risk losing the No. 1 seed to the 49ers, which is good for the Cardinals' hopes.

    But a Bears win against the Vikings in their final game—practically a gimme—would see the Cardinals lose out on the final playoff spot to the Bears. 

    It's a dilemma for sure. Who you cheer for in the Packers-Bears game in Week 16, well, that's up to you. But if the Bears win out, the Cardinals are all but eliminated from contention just as surely as a Lions and Falcons win would do the same, so you better hope that doesn't happen.

What Else Could Come into Play?

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    In addition to the Lions and Falcons and Bears (oh my!) there are actually three other teams in playoff contention—the Dallas Cowboys, New York Giants and Seattle Seahawks. All three teams are currently in the hunt, so each could potentially clinch a playoff berth. Fortunately for the Cardinals, none of these teams have any real baring on the Cardinals' playoff hopes.

    For the Cardinals to win out the season, they have to beat the Seahawks. Like the Cardinals, the Seahawks can only make the playoffs with a 9-7 record, and to achieve that, they would have to beat the Cardinals. Since all of this assumes the Cards will win out the season, the Seahawks have no hope of making the playoffs if the Cardinals beat them.

    As for the Cowboys and Giants—like the Cardinals and Seahawks—these divisional rivals need to play one another. Although it is theoretically possible for all three teams to finish the season on 9-7, the Cardinals hold the advantage in all tiebreakers, thanks to a win against the Cowboys earlier in the season, and would clinch either the fifth or sixth seed—depending on what the Bears manage to do.

    It is also possible for the Bears to win out the season and the Cardinals to still clinch sixth seed. 

    If both the Detroit Lions and the Atlanta Falcons lose out the season, and the Cardinals win out, they make the playoffs, no matter what.

    Whether they do so with the fifth or sixth seed depends on whether or not the Bears win out the season. As we know, the Bears would hold the advantage in a tiebreak over Arizona based on best win percentage in conference games. But if the impossible happens, and the Falcons and Lions both lose out the season, and the Cardinals win out, they are playoff bound.

So...What Are the Chances?

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    Honestly, slim.

    While there are literally dozens of permutations you can come up with which will result in the Cardinals making the playoffs—several of which even result in their clinching the No. 5 seed—each one relies on some very lucky bounces.

    It's firstly hard to guarantee the Cardinals winning out the season, but even if you can imagine this happening, all but the most optimistic fans would hand both the Lions and Falcons at least one win each. 

    The Lions may have struggled especially with discipline, but with no major suspensions or injuries hanging over the team, and a playoff berth on the line, the Lions are likely to grab a win in the final week against a Packers' team with much bigger considerations on its mind.

    The Falcons, who have been one of the more consistent teams in the NFL this season, are unlikely to drop a game to a very poor Tampa team in Week 17, and even if they do, the Bears pose a very real threat to the Cardinals.

    If I was being optimistic, I may just about give the Cardinals a double-digit percentage chance of making the playoffs. If I'm being cautious, maybe a five percent chance.

    If everything falls the Cardinals way this week—a win for the Car's, and losses for the Lions and Falcons—then that increases to perhaps 20 percent. However, if I'm being honest, I have to feel it is more likely that the Cardinals will be out of it altogether by Christmas Day, than that happening right now, which is a shame, because the Cardinals of the second half of the season have deserved it. One has to wonder what they could have achieved with just a couple of extra weeks of preseason workouts.