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Cardinals’ 2015 season a rare achievement in Valley sports

Arizona Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer (3) points to wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald (11) after a touchdown catch during the first half of an NFL football game against the Green Bay Packers, Sunday, Dec. 27, 2015, in Glendale, Ariz. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

GLENDALE, Ariz. — Cardinals coach Bruce Arians will tell you that Sunday’s 38-8 whipping of the Green Bay Packers was just a step. By securing a bye in the first round of the NFL playoffs, Arizona has accomplished nothing more than putting itself in position to achieve its greater goals.

That’s true, but let’s take a moment to acknowledge how rare this 2015 Cardinals season is in Valley sports lore.

Regardless of what happens on Sunday against the Seattle Seahawks in the season finale, Arizona will finish with one of the NFL’s top two records. If the Cardinals lose and New England wins, Arizona would be tied for No. 2 with the Patriots. If the Cardinals win, they’d own the No. 2 spot alone, and if Carolina also loses, Arizona would be tied for the best record in the NFL at 14-2.

The last time this franchise finished No. 1 or No. 2 overall in the NFL was in 1948 when it played in its second straight NFL championship game — when it called Chicago home.

In the Valley’s major pro sports history, only three teams have ever finished with the first or second best record in their league. The Suns did it in the 1992-93; 2004-05; and 2006-07 seasons.

“To be 14-2 would be awesome,” quarterback Carson Palmer said. “It’s a phenomenal record; it’s a phenomenal achievement.

“Just knowing we have a playoff game here and hopefully more is a huge advantage for us.”

Year Team Overall finish Playoff finish
1992-93 Suns 1st Lost NBA Finals
2004-05 Suns 1st Lost WC Finals
2006-07 Suns 2nd Lost WC semifinals
2015 Cardinals 1st or 2nd

The Cardinals thought the stars were aligning for them last season when they opened the year 9-1 and had a chance to play all of their playoff games, including the Super Bowl, at University of Phoenix Stadium. A rash of injuries, most notably Palmer’s torn ACL, derailed those hopes, but Arians said the message this season was never about what might have been; it was about what the Cardinals didn’t do to make what might have been actually happen.

“We tightened up and didn’t play very well,” Arians said. “Even without our quarterbacks we didn’t play well enough to win in the playoffs.”

Arians believes this year’s team is better because it has learned from last year’s mistakes.

“We’ve learned how to win those games this year and it should continue into the playoffs,” he said.

That quiet confidence was apparent in most of the Cardinals who spoke after Sunday’s game. In Arians’ case, it was because he was hoarse after yelling so much during the game; in Palmer’s case, that’s just who he is, but there was still a noticeable absence of celebration in the locker room and at the podium for postgame interviews.

“You don’t get rings for byes,” Arians reminded everyone. “You don’t even get T-shirts and hats.”

The Cardinals want the entire gift package, so the focus remains the same, even if the state of the team is a whole lot more encouraging than it was last season heading into the playoffs.

“It’s all about when you click at the right time and your team is hot going into the playoffs,” cornerback Jerraud Powers said. “Even though last year, mentally and verbally, we could speak on what we wanted to do, 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.

“I think you can see another juice of guys just trying to reach that (playoff) level. You have to take it to another level once you get there. I think guys have realized that and know what it takes.”

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