32 to 1: Cardinals must protect Palmer to survive in the NFC West

Was it a mirage in the desert last season, or are the Arizona Cardinals truly ready to contend with Seattle and San Francisco for NFC West supremacy?

With a 10-6 record — and five of those losses coming against playoff teams — the Cardinals were the NFL’s best club last year to miss the postseason. Arizona also can brag of not only being the last team to defeat the 2013 Seahawks but the first to upend the Super Bowl XLVIII champions at CenturyLink Field in almost two years.

History, though, has shown that teams who improve by five wins or more in one season, as Cardinals did from a 5-11 2012, tend to regress the following year. The best way for Arizona to keep climbing will be better protecting quarterback Carson Palmer and finding a way to replace its outstanding inside linebacker combination of free-agent departure Karlos Dansby (Cleveland) and Daryl Washington, who will miss the entire season while serving a drug suspension.

The Cardinals expect Palmer’s jersey will be cleaner thanks to the free-agent signing of left tackle Jared Veldheer (Oakland) and return of left guard Jonathan Cooper from a broken leg that kept him sidelined all of his 2013 rookie season. Veldheer and Cooper also should help running back Andre Ellington build on a standout rookie campaign.

The inside linebacker situation is more problematic. Dansby and Washington combined for 199 tackles, 9.5 sacks and six interceptions last year. Kevin Minter, a 2013 second-round pick, is slated to replace Dansby while 30-something veterans Lorenzo Alexander and Larry Foote battle for Washington’s starting spot.

There’s also this reality check: The Cardinals could field just as good a roster this year and still miss the playoffs for the fifth consecutive season. That’s because the NFC West is so stacked. Making ground against San Francisco is a must. The Cardinals have lost nine of the past 10 matchups, including four straight.