TEMPE, Ariz. — Bruce Arians’ message to the Cardinals was simple this week.
“We have to win a division game,” Arians said. “We need to make a statement that we can play in the division.”
That’s understandable. The Cardinals are 0-3 against the NFC West this season and 7-2 against everyone else. They haven’t won a division game since the season opener against the Seahawks in 2012, a stretch of eight straight NFC West losses.
How much does winning division games matter to a team’s playoff hopes? Maybe not as much since the NFL went to smaller divisions in 2002, meaning just six of 16 games are played against division foes instead of eight (or 10 in the case of the old six-team AFC Central).
But since 2000, only two NFC teams have made the postseason with a losing division record: the 2008 Eagles (2-4), who lost to the Cardinals in the NFC championship game, and the 2006 Cowboys (2-4), who lost in the first round.
It’s no coincidence that both of those teams came from very strong divisions. In 2008, all four teams in the NFC East (New York, Philadelphia, Dallas and Washington) finished .500 or better. In 2006, Philadelphia, Dallas and New York all made the playoffs. The other three NFC divisions had one team apiece in the postseason.
The NFC West is now viewed by many analysts, executives, coaches and players as the best division in football, but the Cards still have to find a way to do some damage against their division brethren to be taken seriously.
“If you want to go to the playoffs in this league, you’ve got to win division games — maybe not always win your division, but division games are important. They lead to tiebreakers,” right tackle Eric Winston said. “We’ve got three more left in the season. … I think that’s what it’s going to come down to.”
With four games remaining in the season, it’s pretty clear that the Cardinals (7-5) have to win at least two of those three division games to have a chance at the playoffs since they trail the Panthers (9-3) by two games, the 49ers (8-4) by one game and the Eagles (7-5) in a head-to-head tiebreaker for a wild-card spot.
But a look at the various scenarios suggests the Cardinals really need to go 4-0 to have anything more than a remote shot at the postseason. Since the NFL went to the 16-game format, only two 11-5 teams — the 1985 Broncos and the 2008 Patriots — have missed the playoffs.
There is perhaps some irony in the fact that division games will decide the Cardinals’ fate since two narrow road losses within the division — at St. Louis and at San Francisco — may be what ultimately cost them a postseason spot. Had they managed to hold an 11-point fourth-quarter lead against the Rams in the season opener, the picture might look a whole lot different right now.
But that’s water under the bridge. Although the Cardinals keep insisting they control their only destiny, the only thing they really control is their destiny in the next four games. The rest will, as they say, take care of itself.
“You play enough football to know you’ve got to win in your division,” defensive tackle Darnell Dockett said. “But I feel like you’ve got to win every damn game. It’s nothing dramatic. There’s no pressure put on us or anything like that. You just go out and play ball.”