Cardinals' roller-coaster season comes down to one game

TEMPE, Ariz. -- Win and they're in the playoffs, lose and they're packing their lockers on Monday to start their offseason. The Arizona Cardinals' season has come down to one game, Sunday against the Los Angeles Rams (4:25 p.m. ET, CBS).

It didn't look like it would be like this early on, but a roller coaster of a season now comes around its final turn. In their second year under head coach Kliff Kingsbury, the Cardinals started out 5-2. They were in second place in NFC West, a half-game behind the Seattle Seahawks. A division title was in play, as was a top seed in the NFC. But after Arizona's bye, things began going downhill fast.

"That's the league," wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald said. "Every single week is different, presents a new challenge. You never know. That's what makes the soap opera of the National Football League so much fun; [it's] reality TV unfolding every single week."

Fun is one way to describe it. Frustrating or nerve wracking would be others for a franchise that has not been to the postseason since after the 2015 season.

Beginning in Week 9, the Cardinals lost four of five and the only thing that prevented a five-game losing streak was a now-famous Hail Murray -- Kyler Murray's 43-yard touchdown pass to DeAndre Hopkins with two seconds left to beat the Buffalo Bills in Week 10.

Three straight losses followed, dropping the Cardinals to 6-6 and into third place in the NFC West. Arizona rebounded to win their next two before losing last week to the San Francisco 49ers to put them at 8-7.

"It's been wild," safety Budda Baker said.

Among Arizona's losses this season are four games against teams with guaranteed losing records: Detroit (5-10), Carolina (5-10), New England (6-9) and San Francisco (6-9).

"I think it's made us understand that we have to take advantage of every game and not just the big games, but the ones that can sneak up on us, those teams that might not be in the playoffs," Hopkins said. "I think it's taught us a lot, man. Just how to come and start from the get-go and not play around."

Part of the reason for the Cardinals' nosedive was not finishing games, Murray said. And once a loss or two happened, then the team found itself "trapped into that losing feeling."

"Nobody likes it," Murray said, "but you got to fight through it. You got to find the joy in coming back and playing each week, because it's new opportunities. Losing happens, obviously. Nobody wants to lose, but it is what it is. This is the NFL. It's competitive. It's really close."

After the first Rams game -- Arizona's seventh straight loss to Los Angeles and the one that dropped Arizona to 6-6 -- the Cardinals "kind of simplified things," defensive lineman Zach Allen said. They began embracing the motto "know your job, do your job," he said. And Arizona won two straight.

One of those games, against the Eagles, was tied until 7:17 left in the fourth quarter, when Hopkins caught the go-ahead touchdown. The first thing the Cardinals said when they got into the locker room after beating Philadelphia was that they made it more exciting than it should have been.

That has been Arizona's modus operandi this season.

"We just have to find a way to take the next step, not have these moments where we don't feel like we played as well as we could, coached as well as we could," Kingsbury said. "... We had moments that we were good, and we had games we wish that we could have back. You got to eliminate those."

The milk has been spilled. The cat's out of the bag. Pick any colloquialism. There's no going back for the Cardinals now. They're sleeping in the bed they made. One game to decide their season.

Inside the Cardinals' locker room, they're grateful to have a shot at the playoffs. They also know that a week after looking lifeless against the 49ers, they need to play like they have in their eight wins, not like they have in their seven losses.

"If we don't, we go home," offensive lineman Justin Pugh said. "There's no other choice. I mean, we'll be packing our bags this time next week if we don't go out there and do what we need to do.

"It's been the story of our year, the ups and the downs."