Trending up: Cardinals

TEMPE, Ariz. -- The NFL is a cyclical league.

With the exception of a few standards, teams go through winning phases and then fall back into a losing abyss, only to return. The Arizona Cardinals won in 2008 and ’09, going to Super Bowl XLIII in the process. But then from 2010 to 2012, the Cardinals were stuck, stalled by losing. Two 5-11 seasons sandwiched an 8-8 one, a streak that eventually got Ken Whisenhunt fired.

Then Bruce Arians was hired, and he turned Arizona around. The Cardinals went 10-6 this year and were on the cusp of the playoffs for the final couple months of the season. But that’s how it goes in the NFL. And Arizona is only going to get better.

Seven of my colleagues around the NFL and myself decided the teams we cover were on the upswing, and that they’ll only get better in 2014. We ranked the eight teams, which were not in the playoffs in 2013, from most likely to make the playoffs to least likely. The Cardinals finished second, behind, coincidentally, Arians’ old team, the Pittsburgh Steelers.

If their health allows them, the Cardinals will just get better in 2014. The offense finally clicked in the second half of the season, which enabled them to win seven of their final nine games. With an offseason of fully understanding Arians’ scheme, the Arizona will build on the foundation that became so sturdy during the final eight weeks. And defensively, Arizona believes it’s still not where it wants to be after finishing the season as the top-ranked run defense.

The difference between watching the playoffs and suiting up in January could be a few free agents and a better understanding of the offense. This team could be trending upward for a long time.