The Arizona Cardinals once held a clear-cut edge over the entire NFL playoff field. They looked to be in cruise control, particularly when they got Kyler Murray and DeAndre Hopkins back from injuries and moved to 10-2 following their Week 12 bye.
But a lot can change in about a fortnight in this league. Now, a Cards team that is again without Hopkins for an extended stretch has relinquished the top seed in the NFC following a home loss to the division-rival Los Angeles Rams and a downright shocking Week 15 defeat at the hands of the previously 1-11-1 Detroit Lions.
The Lions are scrappy, and they're better than their record. However, that doesn't change the fact Sunday's 30-12 loss was an utter dud for the Cardinals. Combined with that ugly performance in a prime-time home matchup with the Rams, we have enough to indict the Cardinals for football fraud.
Critical home-stretch football has clearly caused this inexperienced team to buckle. Losing Hopkins again didn't help, but that alone doesn't excuse consecutive horrendous performances from Murray. He and offensive-minded head coach Kliff Kingsbury must be capable of overcoming a loss like that, especially against a team like Detroit.
Arizona has scored two touchdowns on its last eight red-zone trips. Murray has just one passing touchdown, no rushing touchdowns and three interceptions in the last two games. He's also been sacked six times and has simply missed several makeable throws.
And this wasn't a squeaker. We're talking about Detroit's most lopsided win at Ford Field since 2017. The league's 26th-ranked running game in terms of DVOA (defense-adjusted value over average at Football Outsiders) was once again ineffective, as Murray—who may still be less than 100 percent healthy—was uncharacteristically shy about scrambling beyond the line of scrimmage.
Meanwhile, the defense has now surrendered 30-plus points twice in a row and three times in a five-game span. In this case, they made Jared Goff look like Patrick Mahomes while some guy named Craig Reynolds rushed for more than 100 yards.
There's not a single area in which they're playing good football at the moment.
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The 10-3 Cardinals lost to the 1-11-1 Lions This is the 3rd time since 1970 that a team w/ the NFL's worst record beat a team w/ the best record (incl tied records), min. 8 gms each The prev. 2 teams to lose — 1995 Cowboys & 2004 Patriots — went on to win Super Bowl that season
And we shouldn't be surprised. Remember, this team was in great shape at 6-3 last season before losing five of their last seven games. They aren't trustworthy.
So honestly, forget about the Cardinals. They now have to finish up against the formidable Indianapolis Colts (who have one regulation loss since Week 3), the NFC East-leading Dallas Cowboys (who ranked third in team DVOA through 14 weeks) and the surging Seattle Seahawks (who could be particularly desperate in Week 18).
Arizona's recent struggles have paved the way for the Green Bay Packers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers to surge to the top of the NFC. The Bucs sprinted to the Super Bowl on the road last January. Imagine Tom Brady and Co. with home-field advantage this time around? They have a perfect home record in 2021. Ditto for the Packers. Nobody wants to go to Lambeau Field to play Aaron Rodgers and Co. in the postseason.
That could have been avoided, or at least limited. Now, instead, the road to Super Bowl LVI in the NFC will almost certainly go through Tampa, Green Bay, or a combination of both cities.
The Buccaneers finish up with opponents who are a combined 13-29, the Packers with teams that are a combined 15-24-1. Green Bay has also already crushed the Lions team that crushed Arizona on Sunday, and they've taken down the Cards themselves.
It's a shame because these Cardinals have the talent to make a deep playoff run. But there's a minuscule margin for error with Brady and Rodgers, and Kingsbury's team wilted under the pressure. Now, it's easy to see the wheels coming off. And even if they avoid that fate, it might be too late to avoid a trip to Florida or Wisconsin en route to the Super Bowl.
In fact, the Cards might have to watch their backs in their own division. A Rams victory Tuesday night over Seattle will move that team into a tie with Arizona atop the NFC West, and their schedule to close the season is also more forgiving than Arizona's.
Classic Cardinals. From cruise control to a wild card in just a few weeks? It's a strong possibility now. And of course, as a result, we'll be left with the same old heavyweights fighting it out atop that conference.
Brad Gagnon has covered the NFL for Bleacher Report since 2012. Follow him on Twitter: @Brad_Gagnon.