TEMPE, Ariz. – It’s the reality that the Arizona Cardinals don't want to think about.
Arizona could win Sunday and become the second team to go 11-5 and miss the playoffs since the divisions were reorganized in 2002, joining New England in 2008. Monday night’s win by San Francisco put Arizona’s postseason fate in the hands of the Saints. If they win, regardless of how Arizona does, the Cards are out.
But if New Orleans loses, Arizona needs to win or tie to get in the NFC playoffs. And, if there’s a crazy twist of fate, if the Saints tie the Bucs, the Cards are in with a win.
“It’s not in our control,” Cardinals coach Bruce Arians said. “I want to be 11-5 and let the chips fall. There is some joy in that. If we’re watching the playoffs, we’ll be watching a bunch of teams we beat. That’s a little bit sour.”
Heading into Week 17, Arizona has topped three playoff teams, two in the NFC and one in the AFC. But it’s at least two of those losses to NFC playoff teams San Francisco and Philadelphia that will come back to haunt the Cardinals if they miss the playoffs.
A fumble in the third quarter by Larry Fitzgerald in San Francisco with Arizona down two points allowed the 49ers to score, go up nine and close out the game. The Cardinals’ only loss in their past eight games came in a sloppy offensive performance on the road at Philadelphia, but a late-game holding penalty on safety Tyrann Mathieu negated a Patrick Peterson interception that could’ve led to a game-tying field goal or game-winning touchdown.
If Arizona misses the playoffs at 11-5, the Cardinals will be kicking themselves for a lot more than two games. There’s also the loss to St. Louis in Week 1 that stands out. Losing at New Orleans in Week 3 and then at home to Seattle on Thursday night in Week 7 coming off the San Francisco game are two that no one will argue about.
“Every single one we had a chance, so if 11-5 is not good enough, then we can look back at those games and say that was one that we should have won, which it also puts us in the division race,” Arians said.
At 10-5, Arizona would lead the NFC East and North, be tied for the lead in the AFC North and South, and have a wild card spot locked up in the AFC to the point where airline tickets could’ve already been purchased.
It just so happened that the NFC West became the best division in football just as the Cardinals found their footing again under Arians. It was in 2010 that the Seahawks won the West at 7-9 and in 2008, when Arizona went to the Super Bowl, it claimed the division at 9-7. Just bad timing.
If Arizona doesn’t make the playoffs, this will be the first year since 1976 the franchise has won 10 or more and didn’t qualify for the postseason. Even after one of the biggest turnarounds in franchise history, getting to 10 or 11 wins and not making the playoffs isn’t enough to satisfy Arians.
“Not really, because it’s all about the ring,” he said. “You play the game to get a ring. You want to get in the dance. It will be nice. It’s a nice foundation but I’m really not about that stuff. We play to get in the playoffs and win the championship.
“It would be a shame, but that’s the way it is. I’m not about changing rules or anything. It’s just a bad year for that to happen. It’s only happened one other time. We’re in a great division, so it could happen to us.”