TEMPE, Ariz. — It’s true that each game on a 16-game NFL schedule counts the same. Win, lose or tie, it’s just one game.
However, it is also true that not all games are created equal.
For the Arizona Cardinals, weeks in which they play the Seattle Seahawks, San Francisco 49ers or St. Louis Rams take on added significance. They’re divisional games, after all, and each offers a chance to put some distance between them and one of the teams they are battling with in the NFC West.
“You’ve got to win the West if you are going to go where you want to go, and San Francisco and Seattle have been the problem,” Cardinals coach Bruce Arians said.
Indeed, at least since Arians arrived in 2013, it has been the 49ers and Seahawks who have served as the biggest roadblocks in the Cardinals’ quest to win the NFC West. Under Arians, Arizona is 3-1 against the Rams but a combined 2-6 against San Francisco and Seattle.
That’s not to say the team is not concerned about the Rams, of course. Just historically speaking, if the Cardinals are to win their division, they’ll have to get through the 49ers and Seahawks first.
Their first chance to do just that comes Sunday in Glendale, as the Cardinals host the 49ers in a key early-season game that will not necessarily determine the NFC West, but will likely play some role in the proceedings.
As Patrick Peterson said, the Cardinals cannot afford to let a game like this one slip away.
“Because we talked about it two years ago, we lost to I believe New Orleans, and the year after that there was another game we lost early,” he said. “But that was the game that was the deciding factor of us going into the playoffs and being a division leader last year.
“We understand how important this game is. We’re definitely not looking at this game as another game on the schedule because obviously, I believe last year was the first time we beat them here in a while.”
It was. The Cardinals knocked off the 49ers 23-14 at University of Phoenix Stadium, ending a four-game Niners win streak. Still, since sweeping the matchups in 2008, the Cardinals have dropped 10 of 12 to their Bay Area counterparts.
So even though the 49ers, at 1-1 in the young season, are not expected to be too competitive this year, the Cardinals are aware they cannot take their opponent lightly.
“The 49ers always play us hard,” safety Tyrann Mathieu said. “So it really doesn’t matter how they’re looking on film or what their record is trying to indicate. They always play the Cardinals hard.”
“Division games are always, always the toughest,” fellow safety Tony Jefferson said. “They bring out their best and we’ve got to be prepared for it.
In at least one key way, the Cardinals are much more prepared for this game than any like it last season.
Quarterback Carson Palmer was healthy for just one NFC West matchup last season (a home win over the Rams in which he tore his ACL), and with him under center the Cardinals have proven to be a very good team. For Palmer, missing five of six division games last season was a tough pill to swallow.
“These are the games that you can’t wait for,” the veteran passer said. “These are the ones that when the schedule comes out you look at Week 3 first and then you see what’s behind it right after Week 4. It’s exciting to see who your opener is and if it’s home or away and then when’s our first NFC West game, and I think everybody in that locker room feels that way.
“I think we are very excited about this opportunity to hopefully get to 3-0 and 1-0 in the West.”
And that’s just it. Every game, divisional or not, offers a chance at a victory. Every victory, in turn, brings the Cardinals one step closer to their ultimate goal, which is an NFC West title and a spot in the postseason. It’s difficult to say what kind of role Sunday’s game will play in the team’s chances, but as the only unbeaten team in the division — and already two games up on the Seahawks — continuing to win would be, well, nice.
Defensive lineman Calais Campbell said he pays attention to what’s happening around the rest of the NFL and especially in the NFC West, but that the only thing he and the Cardinals can worry about is themselves.
“I know our division is a talented division, tough division, every game’s going to be hard,” he said. “Especially this week against San Francisco. They’re hungry, and they want to prove a point against us.
“So we’ve got to come in there and be the more intense, more physical team.”