What needs to happen for the Arizona Cardinals to make the playoffs?

Stifling defense and scary good offense have put the Arizona Cardinals in the position they're in; within reaching distance of a playoff berth. (photo credit: AZCardinals.com)

Stifling defense and scary good offense have put the Arizona Cardinals in the position they’re in; within reaching distance of a playoff berth. (photo credit: AZCardinals.com)

Answering the title question isn’t easy.

Well, actually, it is. The Arizona Cardinals have a rough road to the 2013 playoffs, outside of their control. You’ve heard the phrase before: “controlling their destiny.” Bruce Arians and the Birdgang do not control their own destiny. So to answer the question, a lot needs to happen for the Arizona Cardinals to make the playoffs.

A look at the current NFC playoff standings, including the tiebreakers: (with week 16 Sunday updates)

  1. Seattle (12-3) – NFC West Champ /  clinched playoff berth
  2. Carolina  (11-4) – NFC South Champ / holds tiebreakers over San Francisco
  3. Philadelphia (9-6) – NFC East Champ
  4. Chicago (8-7) – NFC North Champ
  5. New Orleans (10-5) – Wild Card 1 / Holds tiebreaker over San Francisco and Arizona
  6. San Francisco (10-4) – Holds tiebreaker over Arizona
  7. Arizona (10-5) – Holds tiebreaker over Carolina

The Arizona Cardinals, at 10-5, currently claim sole possession of the seventh spot in the NFC playoff race, and due to their week five win over Carolina, they also hold a tiebreaker over the NFC South team. However, that won’t matter since the Panthers will likely win their Division, barring a loss next week at Atlanta.

Here’s where the destiny comes in: the Cardinals could win out, end the season at 11-5, and still miss out on the playoffs. Because Carolina and San Francisco sit one game and one half game ahead of them in the standings, respectively, either team would have to epically collapse to make room for Arizona. That’s an unreasonable expectation from teams that have shown playoff caliber throughout the season.

(photo credit: Mark Zaleski/AP Photo)

(photo credit: Mark Zaleski/AP Photo)

But it is the NFL. Magic can happen. Take last season, for example, where the 10-6 Minnesota Vikings beat the Packers on the last play of the last game of the season, effectively sending the 10-6 Chicago Bears home. Sure, the Vikings would lose the next week, but a rare set of circumstances had to come together for Chicago, who started the season 7-1, to miss the playoffs.

The Arizona Cardinals are hoping and praying they can borrow some of that magic. After the game, you can bet they’ll be checking the other scores to see if they catch a break, especially if they win.

And they need to win. A common thread if Arizona wants to make the playoffs is them winning their next two games against division rivals Seattle and San Francisco. Earlier in the season, the Cards lost the two games against their division foes with a combined score of 66-42. I’m not saying Arizona is far away from these two personnel wise, but they need to be at the top of their game and get all the bounces if they want to beat these two and cash their postseason ticket.

So without further ado, here’s a look at some of the scenarios to bring postseason football back to Glendale for the first time since 2009.

Scenario One: San Francisco Collapse

  1. Arizona wins at Seattle and wins at home against San Francisco to end the season 11-5.
  2. In addition to losing Week 17 against the Cardinals, the 49ers lose Week 16 against Atlanta, ending the season 10-6.

This first scenario is the one with the most dramatic payoff. If Week 16 goes according to script, both teams will go to Glendale sporting a 10-5 record, and the game becomes a playoff game in and of itself; winner goes on, and the loser goes home (barring a parallel collapse by Carolina, but let’s just assume they don’t factor).

The likelihood of the 49ers losing to Atlanta is pretty low, given how little talent is around Matt Ryan right now for the Falcons, but a bad game by Kaepernick, and it isn’t too far-fetched.

Scenario Two: Carolina Collapse

  1. Arizona wins one of their last two games, ending the season at 10-6.
  2. Carolina loses both of their games (vs New Orleans and at Atlanta), ending the season 10-6.

UPDATE: Since Carolina beat New Orleans, this scenario no longer is possible.

OR

  1. Arizona wins both of their last two games, ending the season 11-5.
  2. Carolina loses one of their games, ending the season 11-5.
(photo credit: USATSI)

(photo credit: USATSI)

This scenario, in my opinion, is the most likely. Carolina’s Week 16 matchup against the Saints has a good chance of going the Cardinals way with a Saints loss.

UPDATE: It’s unlikely Carolina loses to Atlanta next week, so this scenario is unlikely. However, stranger things have happened.

The other nifty thing about this scenario is that Arizona can lose a game and still make the playoffs if Atlanta can pull off an upset over Carolina to end the season. What a difference a tiebreaker makes. That situation is also more likely than San Francisco losing to the Falcons, as the Panthers will be traveling to Atlanta. A division road game is tough no matter what the circumstances surrounding it are, which gives me reason to believe Atlanta can pull it off.

Scenario Three: New Orleans Collapse

  1. Arizona wins both of their last two games, ending the season 11-5.
  2. New Orleans loses both of their games, ending the season 10-6.

With their Week 15 loss to St Louis, New Orleans enters the conversation as a team that could just be keeping Arizona’s playoff seat warm. I think this scenario is the least likely of the three, because I think New Orleans is the second best team in the NFC behind Seattle, but it is a possibility nonetheless.

The Saints made quick work of the Panthers in Week 14, winning easily to the tune of 31-13. However, that game was in the Superdome, a place where New Orleans has been unreal this season, going 7-0. Away from home, however, the immortality potion wears off, as they sport a human 3-5 record.

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Even after the Carolina loss, though, the Cardinals postseason hopes will hinge on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers beating the Saints in the Superdome to end the season. Much like the previous two scenarios, the fate of the Redbirds would be in the hands of an NFC South bottom-feeder. Regardless of how well the Buccaneers have been as of late, those are odds I’m not prepared to put my paycheck on.

Unlikely as it is, if the Cardinals do make the playoffs, they promise to be a difficult out for whoever they face. Their opponent would likely be an NFC North or NFC East division winner, divisions in which the Cardinals would be favorites. With an offense led by a hot quarterback in Carson Palmer and defense that as of Week 15 leads the NFL in rush defense, the Cardinals are dangerous if they get to the playoffs. They just need to get there.

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