Cards still have a ways before the playoffs

Cardinals QB Carson Palmer throws for 302 yards and 3 TDs in a three-point loss to the Eagles. John Geliebter/USA TODAY Sports

PHILADELPHIA -- Consider Sunday afternoon under the gloomy skies of Philadelphia a dress rehearsal for the Arizona Cardinals.

Two hours from the dazzling rays of Broadway, the Cardinals saw first-hand what it will take to win in the playoffs. The Eagles are in a dogfight of their own in the NFC East, which raised the stakes of Sunday's soiree at Lincoln Financial Field. Philadelphia, which now owns the tiebreaker between these two, needed the win as much as Arizona.

For the past four weeks, the Cards worked on their lines against a slew of understudies -- Atlanta, Houston, Jacksonville and Indianapolis. After beating up on each of them, the reviews were the same: Look at who Arizona was playing; of course, they'd win those games. Yet the push back every week was equally as consistent: It didn't matter the opponent, the Cardinals were improving.

As it turned out Sunday, there was truth in both.

Beating understudies helped the Cardinals polish an offense that has taken since April to figure things out. At the same time, facing the bottom feeders of the NFL -- save the Colts, but even they haven't played like a division leader without Reggie Wayne -- Arizona didn't know much about its team.

That became a little clearer in its 24-21 loss to the Eagles. The understanding of the Cards' offense is in a different galaxy from even a month ago, but on Sunday they reverted back to the team that couldn't stop edge rushers. That closed the pocket around Carson Palmer quickly, which led to quick throws and two interceptions. On one, Palmer said he didn't even see the pass because he was hit so quickly.

But it's not just the offense that isn't playoff-caliber. Arizona's defense continued to struggle defending tight ends; all three of the Eagles' scores came at the hands of either Brent Celek or Zach Ertz.

Arizona also got caught playing from behind. As they've done so many times this season, the Cardinals started flat only to come alive after halftime. When they've done it before, Arizona was able to rally with the deep ball and eventually overtake the other teams, but Philadelphia isn't like those other teams. Neither are the six teams above them in the standings.

Sunday showed that the Cardinals aren't ready for Broadway. And until that happens, the playoffs will simply be an idea, not a reality.

"We learned a lot of lessons about what a playoff atmosphere is on the road and how to overcome it and how to handle it when bad things happen and when good things happen," Cardinals coach Bruce Arians said. "I was pleased with the way we handled it on the sidelines. But we got to learn from it and know if we play error-free, we can win games like this."

For the past few weeks, once the idea of playing in the postseason became a legitimate possibility, the motto around the Cardinals' locker room has been "every game is a playoff game." For all intent and purpose, it's the truth. Arizona can't afford to lose with how the playoff picture is shaping up.

Yet, for as much as Arians has his team believing it controls its own destiny, it doesn't.

At this point, the Cardinals would need help to make the playoffs, such as San Francisco, Carolina and either Philly or Dallas losing. The 49ers' win against St. Louis puts them a game up on the Cardinals. But, as the NFL has seen every year, anything is possible.

The Cardinals have to create their own good fortune, and that doesn't happen when they trail 17-7 at halftime. As Roman philosopher Seneca once said: "Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity." If the Cardinals can't fix the issues on the offensive line or figure out how to stop tight ends, their luck might run out.

"We just got to keep working," Palmer said. "There's a month of football. There's a lot of football left. A lot of crazy things happen this time of year. We just got to keep our heads down, continue to fight, continue to work."

After Sunday's performance, the Cardinals are sitting between the playoff contenders and the rest of the league. Just two weeks ago, the Eagles led the NFC East. Now they’re barely sitting outside the playoffs.

The consolation for Arizona is its top-10 defense got beat -- barely -- by a gimmick offense. No other team runs a no-huddle, high-tempo scheme like the Eagles. But Arizona needs to stop shooting itself in the foot, Arians said. A late-game interception by Patrick Peterson, which would've set up the Cardinals for either a game-winning touchdown or a game-tying field goal, was negated by Tyrann Mathieu's holding penalty.

It's the small things that separate the Cardinals from a playoff team.

"We are what we are," safety Yeremiah Bell said. "There's no sugar coating anything in this league. Teams watch tape on us, we watch it on them. They know our strengths and weaknesses, and we know theirs. We're too far in the season for that.

"All you can do is prepare and whoever plays best on Sunday is going to win."

It's hard not to look ahead, especially with four games left and the playoffs still within reach. But Sunday was the kind of gauge Arizona needed. Playing the Falcons, Jags and Texans, it's showed, can only prove so much.

The Cards needed to see how they stacked up against a team that very well could be playing in January. And come Monday, when it looks at the film, Arizona may not be looking at a playoff team.

"It was a great challenge for us," Fitzgerald said. "We knew it would be a tough environment. We played OK and not well enough to win, but we have some things we can build on, for sure."