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Arizona Cardinals: Winning season meaningless without playoffs

TEMPE, Ariz. — The great Vince Lombardi once said, “Winning isn’t everything. It’s the only thing.”

For the 2013 Arizona Cardinals, winning truly is not everything. Winning enough, however, is.

At 8-5, the Arizona Cardinals have guaranteed themselves a non-losing record for the seventh time since moving to the Valley. With one more win, they’d have their fourth winning season in that span. As much of an accomplishment that may be (or indictment of the past, really), especially after the team won just five games a year ago, a winning record would not mean much if it does not lead to a playoff berth.

“It probably does to some people, but to me it’s all about getting into the dance,” coach Bruce Arians said. “That ensures all those other things, unless you’re in the AFC.”

This season, it appears likely nine wins will be enough get an AFC Wild Card spot. Unfortunately for the Cardinals, they reside in the other conference.

Along with being in the NFC, the Cardinals also have the misfortune of residing in what is widely understood to be the toughest division in the NFL. In part because of their record against NFC West foes, the Cardinals currently find themselves on the outside of the playoff picture. With the right combination of wins over their final three games and help from teams they are chasing, the playoffs could be a reality.

Or, they may end up falling just short, leading to regret over a couple of games the team let slip away. The sad part is, as receiver Larry Fitzgerald noted, opportunities to make the playoffs don’t always come around.

“We’ve got a lot of guys — Dansby and Dockett and Carson — that we’ve been in the league 10-plus years,” he said. “There’s no ‘that was a good season.’ I don’t know in my career if I’ll ever have the opportunity to be this close to making the playoffs. You just never know.”

Only thrice in their history have the Cardinals finished a season with a winning record, and each time they were rewarded with a playoff spot. In, 2008 they turned a 9-7 division-winning season into an improbable Super Bowl run.

At the time, NBC analyst Cris Collinsworth referred to the Cardinals as the worst team ever to make the playoffs. Now, though, they may be one of the better teams to miss them.

“I remember 2008, 24 years old, and I’m thinking this is something that’s going to happen a lot, you know, continuously, every single year,” Fitzgerald said. “You realize that there’s no guarantees in this business, and when you have your opportunity, you’ve got to make the best of it. And we have an opportunity right now; I think everybody in this locker room understands that.”

Fitzgerald added that if the Cardinals win their final three games, they’ll make the playoffs, and that’s the goal going forward.

Even if the Cardinals do run the table, that alone is not enough to guarantee a game past Week 17. They are one game back of both the San Francisco 49ers and Carolina Panthers — the two teams they are chasing for a Wild Card spot. They will not have the tiebreaker over San Francisco, meaning the Cards will have to finish one game ahead of the 49ers in the standings to secure a berth. As for the Panthers, the Cardinals do hold the tiebreaker, meaning they need to win one more game than the Panthers do over the final three to clinch a spot.

So, the Cardinals can certainly help their cause with three more wins, but they’ll still need some assistance from others, which they haven’t really gotten of late.

“I definitely go through and see who did what,” quarterback Carson Palmer said. “You can’t help but do that. You can’t help but be bitter that the Seahawks didn’t hold on last week and win.”

But, he also said none of that will matter if the Cardinals don’t win the next game on their schedule, which is Sunday on the road against the Tennessee Titans.

“This team knows where it’s at and we’ve got to win it on the road,” Arians said. “And just take them one at a time, just one day at a time, one play at a time. We’ll be fine.”

After all, anything can happen over the final three weeks of the season.

“Everybody could lose out, everybody could win out,” left tackle Bradley Sowell said. “Three games is a lot of ball left to be played in this league, so we’re just going to have fun and play as hard as we can and see if we can make our way in there.”