TEMPE, Ariz. -- Technically, the difference between 1-3 and 2-2 is just one game.
But in reality, it’s much more than a single-digit swing in the Arizona Cardinals' record a quarter of the way through the 2016 season. Starting 2-2, after a win Sunday over the San Francisco 49ers, means Arizona would either be tied for the NFC West lead or still sit a game behind the Rams, depending on how they fare against Dallas. But more importantly, it would give Arizona a clean slate of sorts heading into October, whereas a 1-3 start would mean the Cardinals will be fighting through October to stay relevant in the division’s playoff picture.
Because of the difference the two records can have on the short- and long-term future of the season, Sunday’s game has taken on great importance throughout the locker room than just a divisional matchup.
“This is a must-have game for us,” wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald said. “We have to stay in the division race and we can’t get behind.”
Quarterback Carson Palmer called Sunday a “huge game” because of its implications.
The Cardinals, 1-2, currently sit tied for second in the West with the Seattle Seahawks, one game behind the 2-1 Rams and one game ahead of the 0-3 Niners, who visit University of Phoenix Stadium on Sunday afternoon.
Coach Bruce Arians has taken the “glass is half full” approach to this weekend’s division game.
“You’re a game out of first place right now, but you’ve got to start stacking wins in the division,” he said.
Arians believes there are “powerhouses” in the West, but the records don’t reflect that just yet.
Since the NFL went to a 12-team postseason in 1990, 14.3 percent of teams who started 1-3 made the playoffs compared with 36.2 percent of teams who started 2-2.
“We definitely want to be at .500 because if we go to 1-3, at the end of the day, it’s still early in the season but we don’t want to dig ourselves out of a hole,” cornerback Patrick Peterson said. “It’s much easier to be above water than under water. If we can definitely split this, we just have to regroup. September football is over. Now we have to look forward to October. I believe that’s when you really start to get into your groove and start figuring out what kind of players you got and what kind of team you have, as well.”
Under Arians, Arizona has had a losing record after four games just once, last season, which led to a 7-8-1 record. Otherwise, Arizona has been 2-2, 3-0 and 3-1 in 2013, 2014 and 2015, respectively. They made the playoffs the years they started with three wins in their first four games.
The Cardinals head into Sunday’s game coming off a short week having lost to Dallas on Monday night. The Niners, on the other hand, had a long week to recover after putting up 39 points in a loss to the Rams on a Thursday night game on Sept. 21.
Arizona is trying not to pay any attention to the Niners’ record.
“Every time we play San Francisco, they give us their best shot,” Palmer said. “They’ve always played really, really well against us -- really, really hard against us. They’re playing hard on film.
“We’re in a difficult spot, coming off a loss on a short week with a team that’s got 10-or-so days rest.”
A win can start to right Arizona’s woes to start the season. A loss can make an uphill trek toward the playoffs even steeper.
“It’s a long season,” Arians said. “It’s still September, and this division, I think, will go to the wire.”