Cardinals made erratic run through AFC East

Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Graham
The difference between a winner and a loser rarely looks as blatant as it did Dec. 21 in Foxborough, Mass. The Arizona Cardinals had a better chance dodging the falling snow than they did disastrous plays against the New England Patriots.

The Cardinals certainly didn't look like a Super Bowl team that wintry afternoon. They looked like playoff frauds while the Patriots slapped them around 47-7.

With that, Arizona completed its enigmatic tour against the AFC East.

The NFC West and AFC East were cross-conference opponents this year, pitting one of the weakest divisions against one of the most competitive.

Twice Arizona looked like an elite club. Twice it looked like a team that didn't belong in the playoffs, let alone capable of a Super Bowl run.

Week 2 vs. Miami Dolphins, 31-10 W

What it meant for the Cardinals: An impressive showing, the Cardinals handed the AFC East champs their worst regular-season loss.

After a so-so performance in the season opener, Kurt Warner gave the NFL the first glimpse of what the Cardinals' offense could do. He completed 19 of 24 passes for 361 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions. Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin had six receptions apiece for 153 and 140 yards.

What it meant for the Dolphins: Such a thrashing and a 0-2 start had Dolfans dreading another year like their 1-15 campaign. But the loss jolted the Dolphins and, out of desperation for something to stunt a downward spiral, they introduced their Wildcat offense the next week at New England for a season-changing blowout victory.

Week 4 at New York Jets, 56-35 L

What it meant for the Cardinals: Although the final score made it look like the Cardinals' defense was abysmal, seven turnovers (three interceptions, four fumbles) set up the Jets like they were in a college-overtime format. The Jets recorded five sacks.

The only positive spin was their ability to battle back from a 34-0 halftime deficit to get within 13 points in the third quarter. The Cardinals slipped to 2-2 with the loss and, while Warner's 472-yard day was remarkable, looked nothing like NFC contenders.

A vicious hit by Jets safety Eric Smith broke Boldin's face and raised concerns of how the Cardinals' offense would cope without him. The Cardinals won twice without him to reinforce they were a team worth watching.

What it meant for the Jets: After a 1-2 start, the record-setting victory sent the Jets on a scalding stretch in which they won seven out of eight games to become a fashionable Super Bowl pick. Anybody wondering if Brett Favre had anything left to give had to be won over by his performance: 24-of-34 for 289 yards and a personal-best six touchdowns. Little did we know ...

Week 5 vs. Buffalo Bills, 41-17 W

What it meant for the Cardinals: They rebounded against a team that was gaining favor as an AFC contender. The Bills were 4-0, but the Cardinals smashed them apart to rise above .500 for good.

Warner continued to generate MVP buzz by completing 33 of 42 passes for 250 yards and two touchdowns without an interception. Arizona's defense was brilliant with four takeaways and five sacks.

What it meant for the Bills: Cardinals safety Adrian Wilson crashed through the line and delivered a helmet-to-helmet hit that concussed Bills quarterback Trent Edwards. The collision might have altered Buffalo's course 180 degrees. After their bye, Edwards started the next game against the San Diego Chargers and was outstanding, but then he fell apart in a nauseating stretch of seven losses in eight games.

Week 16 at New England Patriots, 47-7 L

What it meant for the Cardinals: The defeat was meaningless in the sense Arizona already had locked up a first-round home playoff game, but the damage to their confidence was potentially ruinous. This was their low point of the season, and the playoffs were starting in two weeks. But it served as a wake-up call.

The Cardinals already had clinched the NFC West, and when they stepped off the bus at Gillette Stadium they saw miserable conditions -- a combination of cold, wind and freezing rain. Mentally, the Cardinals stayed on the bus.

Warner was 6-of-8 for 30 yards before giving way to Matt Leinart. The Cardinals rushed for 44 yards. They had the ball for a measly 21:25.

What it meant for the Patriots: Their fans still point at this game as an example of postseason injustice. The Patriots pulverized a playoff team but had to stay home in January. The Cardinals qualified with a 9-7 record because they won their division, while the Patriots became only the second 11-win team since the NFL-AFL merger not to get in.

Matt Cassel had another sensational game in his first career snow game. He completed 20 of 36 passes for 345 yards and three touchdowns.