Cardinals limp to finish, let Seahawks in

ATLANTA -- The Arizona Cardinals better not be claustrophobic. It’s getting a bit crowded atop the NFC West.

And it might get jam-packed before long.

Whatever breathing room the Cardinals gave themselves with a 9-1 start all but evaporated with Sunday’s 29-18 loss to the Atlanta Falcons. It was their second straight defeat, and it dropped the Cardinals to 9-3. Yes, they are still in first place in the West, but Arizona can see the Seattle Seahawks in its rearview mirror.

As ice cold as the Cardinals have been, the Seahawks have been equally molten hot. Seattle has won five of its past six, including two straight, and has climbed within one game of the Cardinals.

But despite an inept offense and an injury report that reads like a roll call, the Cardinals are still in first place in the NFC -- barely. Sunday’s loss dropped them into a three-way tie atop the conference, alongside Green Bay and Philadelphia. All three are 9-3, but because of tiebreakers, the Cards still own home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.

That’s just this week, however.

With the way Arizona’s been playing, it could easily change, and injuries aren’t helping. Three more Cardinals starters left Sunday’s game with injuries. When Kansas City comes to University of Phoenix Stadium in Week 14, Arizona might be down another running back, right guard and safety. On Sunday, Andre Ellington suffered a hip pointer, Paul Fanaika a high left ankle sprain and Tyrann Mathieu a fractured left thumb.

“We're numb to that,” linebacker Larry Foote said. “We don’t care about injuries. From training camp, from the offseason, guys have stepped up. We’re 9-3. We know we believe in whoever’s playing.”

Yet, before Arizona can worry about whether it’ll be sleeping at home or in a hotel come January, the Cardinals need to concern themselves with Seattle. With four games remaining, the Seahawks have the tougher schedule of the two and face teams who are a combined 30-18, whereas the Cardinals’ next four opponents are 27-20, excluding Kansas City’s game Sunday night against Denver.

The Chiefs are the latest team to beat Seattle. Then the Cardinals travel to St. Louis to face the Rams, who’ve embraced their reputation as this year’s NFC West spoiler. Awaiting Arizona in Week 16, however, is Seattle in a game that might just determine the division -- and could possibly keep the Cardinals from missing the playoffs. Then the Cards close the regular season in San Francisco.

It’s an unenviable schedule, but it's not as difficult as Seattle’s. The Seahawks visit Philadelphia this week in a game that could not only knock the Cardinals out of the top seed but also might be critical to their hoisting their first banner since 2009. Then they host San Francisco, travel to Arizona and host St. Louis to end the year.

If Arizona keeps losing and Seattle keeps winning, the Cardinals could be out of the playoffs if they fall to the Seahawks in Week 16, according to the ESPN NFL Playoff Machine.

As beat up as Arizona is, Seattle is equally healthy, especially after getting linebacker Bobby Wagner back and having safety Kam Chancellor healthy against Arizona in Week 12. It doesn’t seem plausible Arizona could end up watching the playoffs, but for as many wins as the Cards have stacked up this year, they’ve piled up even more injuries.

At what point will the injuries become too insurmountable? Are the Cardinals already there? Quarterback Drew Stanton laughed at the thought.

“I don’t know,” he said. “I think we’re just going to have to play the hand we’re dealt. So, whoever’s hurt, the next man’s got to step up, and we’ve just got to roll with the punches, as far as injuries are concerned.”