The Arizona Cardinals were on cruise control a year ago, surging toward a possible No. 1 seed in the postseason when the injury bug struck.
First came a season-ending knee injury to starting quarterback Carson Palmer. That was followed by a knee injury to backup Drew Stanton, which preceded two losses to close out the regular season before a meek effort in a playoff defeat at Carolina.
Arizona fans were left to ponder a number of "what-if" scenarios throughout the offseason, but coach Bruce Arians offered a different slant. He didn’t think the 2014 Cardinals were quite ready for the bright lights.
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"We tightened up and didn’t play very well," Arians told reporters following Sunday’s win over Green Bay that clinched a first-round bye in the postseason. "Even without our quarterbacks we didn’t play well enough to win in the playoffs."
Cardinals cornerback Jerraud Powers echoed the sentiments of Arians. In essence, Powers said last year’s team could talk the talk but was unable to walk the walk, the main reason why Arizona stumbled down the stretch with five losses in its last seven games.
"Even though last year, mentally and verbally, we could speak on what we wanted to do," Powers said. "If you watched us play toward the end of the year, you could see us breaking down a little bit with guys just beat up, hurt, fatigued and all that."
In his last 30 starts dating back to Wk 8 of the 2013 season Carson Palmer is 26-4 (.867 win % in that span is best in the NFL)
That’s not the case this season. With Palmer healthy and back under center, the Cardinals are riding a nine-game winning streak and once again are vying for the top seed in the NFC entering Sunday’s regular-season finale against the visiting Seattle Seahawks.
Arians pointed to one residual benefit of the late-season collapse a year ago, noting how it served as somewhat of a blueprint for this year’s squad to succeed.
"We’ve learned how to win those games this year and it should continue into the playoffs," Arians said.
One might surmise that the injuries to Palmer and Stanton also taught Arians to take a more cautious approach with his key players for Sunday’s matchup against Seattle, particularly with a bye and a home playoff game already assured.
Guess again. At Monday’s media briefing, Arians said there are no plans to rest his players.
"We will approach this game as if it were Game 1 of the season. We don’t want to set a pattern of different behavior," Arians said. "We are playing so well right now. I don’t want to change any way we prepare."
Beast Mode on the horizon?
Running back Marshawn Lynch could rejoin the Seahawks on Wednesday, which would be his first practice session with the team since he underwent abdominal surgery on Nov. 25.
Seattle coach Pete Carroll on Monday told reporters that Lynch’s availability could hinge on how comes out of a pair of workouts this week. Lynch is rehabbing his injury in San Francisco, and Carroll said the Seahawks are relying on reports from his star running back’s personal training staff.
"Those guys know him really well and they’re the ones that have, for the last few years, really done great work with Marshawn," Carroll said. "We’re trusting that they’re looking seriously at the preparation level, his endurance, all of those things to give us a good indication that we can move forward."
While it’s implausible to believe Lynch could be ready for game action this week, there is little doubt that the Seahawks need him in their bid for a third straight Super Bowl appearance. Former cast-offs Christine Michael and Bryce Brown fared well in their first game after rookie Thomas Rawls suffered a broken ankle, but they were limited to a combined 15 yards on 13 carries in Sunday’s 23-17 home loss to St. Louis.
Last call for Rams-49ers
Sunday’s finale between the visiting Rams and San Francisco 49ers could serve as somewhat of an audition for 2016.
Rams quarterback Case Keenum is 3-1 since replacing starter Nick Foles while San Francisco’s Blaine Gabbert is 2-5 since taking over for Colin Kaepernick, who was benched, ironically, following a 27-6 loss at St. Louis on Nov. 1.
The Rams are riding a three-game winning streak while the 49ers have dropped three in a row, so how the players perform in an otherwise meaningless matchup between the league’s two worst offenses could go a long way in deciding a lot of jobs entering the offseason.