Throughout the Cardinals’ four-game winning streak, there were always accompanying qualifiers.
They won three of four at home. They beat three teams with a current combined record of 8-28. Their only road win came at Jacksonville, which hadn’t scored a TD on home turf all year before Arizona showed up.
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The Cardinals won those games — the games they were supposed to win — and that’s a big credit to the coaching staff and the players. But with a few exceptions, making the NFL playoffs requires something more than doing the expected. It requires an unexpected performance. It requires being unbeatable at home or winning a big game on the road against a quality opponent.
The Cardinals still haven’t done the latter, and their failure to do so on Sunday in Philadelphia has their playoff hopes in a precarious position. Sunday’s 24-21 loss dropped Arizona 7-5, two games behind Carolina and one game behind San Francisco with four games remaining in the race for the NFC’s wild card spots.
“It’s just a minor setback,” receiver Larry Fitzgerald said. “We still control our own destiny.”
That’s actually not true.
Carolina (9-3) has two games left with New Orleans, but the Panthers also host the Jets and travel to Atlanta to face what may be the NFC’s worst team. San Francisco (8-4) hosts Seattle next week but then goes to Tampa and hosts the Falcons before closing the season in Glendale.
At 7-5, perhaps the Cardinals can afford one more loss (that game at Seattle screams loss, no?), but that probably means winning both of their home games and winning either at Tennessee or Seattle. And even then, they’ll need some unexpected help.
It’s a tough pill to swallow, because with Chicago’s loss at Minnesota, the Cardinals essentially could have turned this into a three-team race for the wild card by beating the Eagles, and they own the tiebreaker with the Panthers.
The Cards are most likely going to finish with a winning record this season, and that is clearly progress for first-year coach Bruce Arians, first-year GM Steve Keim and a radically revamped roster coming off a 5-11 debacle. But it’s probably not going to be playoff-type progress.
That opportunity put two legs and one arm out the window when the offense — minus a key part in running back Andre Ellington — turned in a retro performance for the better part of three quarters. QB Carson Palmer underthrew two receivers who might have taken those catches for TDs but instead watched helplessly as the balls were intercepted, giving Palmer 17 picks this season.
Rob Housler dropped what should have been an easy first-down reception. Left tackle Bradley Sowell was a turnstile. The Cards turned the ball over three times. Palmer was sacked five times by a defense that had averaged about two per game and, well, you get the picture.
“We played good enough to play close but not good enough to win,” Arians said. “We self-inflicted ourselves with wounds in the first half that cost us points.”
Sure, there were some tough calls against the Cardinals in the final minutes — the most costly a questionable Tyrann Mathieu holding penalty that negated Patrick Peterson’s interception in Philadelphia territory with Arizona down by three — a call that looked all the more suspicious when Cards receiver Michael Floyd got mugged a couple times in the closing minutes with no call, and when Matt Shaughnessy was whistled for holding, setting off a Daryl Washington tirade.
The Cardinals mostly bit their tongues when asked about those pivotal calls, and that is probably prudent. While those calls will surely be all the rage on reactionary talk radio today, the truth is the Cardinals didn’t answer the opening bell. They put themselves in position for disappointment. They put themselves in position for an official’s call to hurt them.
“The refereeing did not determine us losing the football game,” Arians said. “We did not make enough plays.”
Arizona’s playoff hopes aren’t dead after this loss, but they are remote. For that, the Cardinals really have nobody to blame but themselves.
“The outcome wasn’t what we wanted, but any time you lose it’s frustrating,” Palmer said. “To have a chance to win it and have multiple opportunities to make plays and different things happen all game long? It’s just frustrating when you don’t win those kinds of games.”