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It’s Now or Never for the Arizona Cardinals

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The Arizona Cardinals enter Thursday night’s game against the 49ers in San Francisco in a state of disarray few, if any, saw coming.

After a strong playoff run last season that ended in the NFC Championship Game, the Cardinals were a chic pick for Super Bowl LI. But Arizona is off to an extremely rough start in their pursuit of the second Super Bowl berth in franchise history. They lost three of their first four games, including a loss to an undermanned Patriots team in Week 1 and back-to-back losses the last two weeks to the Bills and Rams, two teams the Cardinals were heavily favored to defeat.

Those losses in particular have sent the Cards into a tailspin, and things went from bad to worse when quarterback Carson Palmer was knocked out of the game against the Rams and diagnosed with a concussion that will keep him out of Thursday night’s game.  Now sitting at 1-3 at the bottom of a competitive NFC West, they face a divisional rival on the road with Drew Stanton under center.

How did the Cardinals, a team that rolled to a 13-3 record last year and dethroned Seattle in the West, get to this point just four weeks into the 2016 season where they’ve already lost as many games as they did last season? And how can they dig themselves out of this hole and get back into the race?

To answer the second question, we must first answer the first: What’s happened so far?

Honestly, the Cardinals didn’t come into the season prepared to play an opponent the caliber of the New England Patriots. They took for granted that Tom Brady would be out and Jimmy Garoppolo would be making his first NFL start. It was clear in the way they reacted throughout the game and that’s an indictment on coach Bruce Arians, one of the best and most well-respected coaches in the league. Arians has been great for Arizona, but he didn’t have them ready for Week 1 and they paid dearly for it.

It was especially galling given the high-level of preparation clearly present across the field from Bill Belichick and his coaching staff. They put their young quarterback in a position to succeed against a tough Arizona defense despite being without his best weapon and two of his best blockers, and on defense New England capitalized just enough on the Cardinals’ shortcomings to pull out the win. Belichick had months to prepare for the game, so did Arians, but only one took advantage.

Arizona seemed to get back on track in Week 2, throttling the Tampa Bay Buccaneers with an outright dominant performance the likes of which we’d come to expect of the Cardinals after last season’s run.

But the flaws returned when Arizona made its first road trip of the season to Buffalo and they were exposed by a Bills team that outclassed the Cardinals at every turn. LeSean McCoy ran roughshod over the supposedly stout Arizona run defense early in the game and helped Buffalo build a 17-0 lead. A touchdown late in the first half by the Cardinals looked like it might swing momentum, but the Cards offense went a quick three-and-out and on the next possession the Bills went right down and scored another touchdown to re-establish a 17-point lead.

The Buffalo defense then stood up to the previously potent Arizona attack and kept them short of the end zone, forcing a field goal try that went awry. Buffalo returned the botched snap for a touchdown to essentially put the game out of reach. It was a stunning loss for the Cardinals that saw their play on offense and defense exposed by a Bills team that bumbled into the game at 0-2 off a Thursday night loss to the Jets where little went right.

The expectation was that the Cardinals would regroup in time for their Week 4 meeting with the Los Angeles Rams back at home in Arizona much after they did against Tampa the week after New England left them exposed. But this time around, that didn’t happen.

Arizona played well on defense for most of the game, but couldn’t get much of anything going on offense, even before Palmer was knocked out of the game with less than six minutes to go. Still, that appeared to be the turning point of the game. The Cards led 13-10 at that point, and were nearing midfield looking to extend the lead when Palmer’s day ended on a third down sack by Aaron Donald. Los Angeles’ Tavon Austin returned the ensuing punt into the red zone and it took just four plays for the Rams to grab the lead as they kept the Arizona defense on their heels for the short length of the drive.

With Palmer out and Drew Stanton seeing his first meaningful action of the season, the Cardinals offense had nothing for the Rams defense and both drives ended with interceptions, including one on a Hail Mary to end the game.

Now Stanton will have to step up in what is essentially a must-win game for his team against a 49ers squad that has played well at home, on a short week. The Niners, also 1-3, shut out the same Rams team that gave Arizona fits last week in Week 1 in San Francisco, and last week they played a tight and competitive game with the Dallas Cowboys. It’s a game that should belong to Arizona, but that’s been true the last two weeks as well, and the pressure on the Cardinals has never been higher than it will on Thursday night.

There is a possible path for Arizona to overcome this dreadful start and make their way back to the top of the NFC West by season’s end. They still have one more game with the Rams and two with the 3-1 Seattle Seahawks, giving them plenty of time and opportunity to get back even and even pass those two teams. But it has to start on the road, starting a second string quarterback, on Thursday night, where wacky things tend to happen just because of the nature of the short week.

It’s a challenge, but one they must overcome to stand any chance of fulfilling those Super Bowl hopes that were so prominent just a month ago. Arians said the next step toward that goal is simple.

“Just win a damn game,” Arians said. “That’s how you get on a roll.”

It sounds so easy. Whether Arizona can actually do it is another question entirely.


About Devon Jeffreys

Devon Jeffreys