Cards not quite Super Bowl ready

Carson Palmer and the Arizona Cardinals just missed out on the playoffs this past season. Sam Greenwood/Getty Images

TEMPE, Ariz. -- Coach Bruce Arians said Wednesday the NFL owners meetings that the Arizona Cardinals could be the first team to play a home Super Bowl.

“There's no reason we can't be the first team to play a home Super Bowl,” he said, according to multiple reports. “Absolutely no reason.”

Doing it would be as hard as a college basketball team playing in the Final Four in its home city. A lot has to happen; a lot of pieces have to fall into place.

After a 10-6 season in 2013, the Cardinals are closer than most teams in the NFL. Even more so after solidifying left tackle, cornerback, third receiver and kick returner during free agency. Those additions give Arians a case for the Cardinals making a run to Super Bowl XLIX at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Ariz.

Then again, at this point in the year, every coach believes his team can do the same thing -- although some coaches know it’s more likely while others are crossing their fingers and toes.

But as Arians sat in Orlando, Fla., talking to the media during this week’s meetings, the Cardinals aren’t Super Bowl ready just yet. They’re close, but they’re not there.

The offense is the primary reason. Sure, the adage is defense wins championships -- it also wins games, as was the case at Seattle in December when quarterback Carson Palmer threw four interceptions and the defense still led Arizona to a win -- but the offense needs to produce consistently for the Cardinals to even think about making a deep run in January. The Cards have to convert more third downs and keep drives going longer than in 2013.

Throughout last season, they showed glimpses of a high-octane offense hidden under the plethora of interceptions and failed drives, scoring 10 offensive touchdowns on five plays or fewer. The Cardinals failed to convert on 136 of 210 third downs in 2013. If they can convert even 25 percent more of those drives into a field goal or a touchdown, a Super Bowl may start coming into focus.

On paper, the offense looks like a playoff-caliber unit. The question then becomes: Can the Cardinals start training camp at the same place offensively as they ended 2013? And can they continue to improve without taking one step back to take two steps forward?

The defense, as it is today, is a playoff-caliber unit, but it’s a few pieces away from being a championship-level defense. The Kevin Minter experiment, finding a safety who will neutralize tight ends and Tyrann Mathieu returning from his knee injury are three factors standing between the Cardinals and a Feb. 1, 2015, home game.

Minter will be given the starting job at inside linebacker, which was vacated when Karlos Dansby left for Cleveland, until he loses it, Cardinals general manager Steve Keim said last week. How Minter can adapt to the NFL speed as an undersized thumper who played just one down on defense last season will dictate how effective Arizona’s secondary will be.

The defensive line will again be strong, especially with the return of Sam Acho and Lorenzo Alexander from injuries. With John Abraham and Matt Shaughnessy coming off the edges, the linebackers will need to be responsible for the second layer so the secondary can focus on slowing down receivers. Last season, Dansby’s speed allowed him to get from sideline to sideline effectively. But does Minter have that same quickness? Only time will tell.

By adding cornerback Antonio Cromartie, the Cardinals’ secondary was drastically improved, but there’s still a major gap at strong safety. Last year, that position was filled by Yeremiah Bell, who at 6-foot-0, struggled against tall tight ends. A bigger safety will have to be one of Arizona’s top priorities in May’s draft because Tony Jefferson, Bell's apparent successor on the current roster, is only 5-11. With 17 of the 29 touchdowns thrown by opponents going to tight ends last season, slowing them will be the difference between 10 wins and 12 or 13.

The last major piece on defense that could make the Cardinals into a championship-caliber team is Mathieu. He missed the final three games with ACL and LCL injuries, and a return date hasn’t been set because recovery from an LCL injury typically has an indefinite timetable. If Mathieu can return to form quickly, he’ll add another playmaking dynamic to the Cardinals’ secondary that has the potential to make life miserable for opposing quarterbacks.

With his versatility, Mathieu can play three positions -- inside and outside corner and safety -- while filling in at nickel without the Cardinals needing to substitute. That seamless flexibility will keep the defense as one coherent unit and allow defensive coordinator Todd Bowles to alter the scheme on the fly.

It’s clear a lot needs to happen for Arizona to enjoy the comforts of home during Super Bowl week, but for all the right reasons. It’s possible, but there’s plenty of work to be done.