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Arizona Cardinals' 2021 schedule: First half could make or break season

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Why Stephen A. isn't ready to believe in the Cardinals (1:31)

Stephen A. Smith cites the tough competition in the NFC West as the reason he doesn't have confidence in the Cardinals. (1:31)

The Arizona Cardinals' 2021 schedule was released along with the rest of the NFL slate on Wednesday.

The 2021 NFL season will kick off on Thursday, Sept. 9 with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers hosting the Dallas Cowboys (8:20 p.m. ET). ESPN's Monday Night Football opener on Sept. 13 will feature the Las Vegas Raiders hosting the Baltimore Ravens (7:10 p.m. ET).

The NFL will change its schedule for the first time in 44 years, expanding to 17 regular-season games. The final regular-season games will be played January 9, 2022. The playoffs begin January 15, 2022 and continue through Super Bowl LVI on Feb. 13, 2022 at Los Angeles' SoFi Stadium.

Here's what in store for the Cardinals:

Schedule

Sept. 12: at Tennessee

Sept. 19: vs. Minnesota

Sept. 26: at Jacksonville

Oct. 3: at L.A. Rams

Oct. 10: vs. San Francisco

Oct. 17: at Cleveland

Oct. 24: vs. Houston

Oct. 28: vs. Green Bay (TNF)

Nov. 7: at San Francisco

Nov. 14: vs. Carolina

Nov. 21: at Seattle

Nov. 28: Bye

Dec. 5: vs. Chicago

Dec. 13: vs. L.A. Rams (MNF)

Dec. 19: at Detroit

Dec. 25: vs. Indianapolis

Jan. 2: at Dallas

Jan. 9: vs. Seattle

Strength of schedule: T-13th, .507

Biggest takeaway

The Cardinals don't have it easy this season. The way their schedule ended up falling, especially early, won't allow for any "easy" stretches. They have two trips to the Eastern time zone in their first three games, followed by two NFC West games, a trip to Cleveland, an emotional game at home against the Houston Texans and then the Packers at home on Thursday night football. By time Week 8 is over, the Cardinals season could be made or broken. Any time Arizona thinks it has a break or two they play a divisional foe or a playoff team. They also only have one stretch of back-to back home games and back-to-back away games twice. Otherwise, their schedule alternates home and away.

One storyline to watch

Will the Cardinals have another nose dive like they did in 2020? And, if they do, when will it happen? Do they start slow and finish fast or vice-versa like last season? Between cross-country trips and important games sprinkled in between winnable games, there isn't a part of the Cardinals schedule that would allow them to slide. They do have three of their final five at home, but as was the case last season against the 49ers in Week 16, that doesn't matter anymore for this franchise. It's not an easy schedule when coach Kliff Kingsbury's job could be on the line.

What Vegas thinks

The oddsmaker have the Cardinals' win total at eight. It's a fair assessment considering how tough the NFC West got during the offseason and how good some of Arizona's non-divisional games are. The Cardinals need their offense to hit the ground running at a pace not yet seen under Kingsbury -- and then maintain it -- to get above eight wins.

Bold prediction

The Cardinals should win at least seven games but that could turn into 10 or more if the offense plays steady and the defense plays like it should with all the talent it has on paper. Optimism may be hard to come by after losing six of their final nine regular-season games last season.