TEMPE, Ariz. — It was just two weeks ago the Arizona Cardinals were 9-1 with the best record in the NFL and a three-game lead on the Seattle Seahawks in the NFC West.
It seems like ages.
Arizona lost its second consecutive game Sunday, falling to the Atlanta Falcons by a score of 29-18.
The offense, just as it did the prior week in Seattle, sputtered, gaining just 329 yards while failing to reach the end zone until the final minutes after the outcome had been decided. The defense, which had been stout all season, was gashed for 500 yards, including 142 on the ground.
It was by far the worst effort this team has put forth in 2014, and one that has led to some wondering if, finally, the numerous injuries have caught up to them.
But no matter how bleak things may look right now, the Cardinals are still 9-3 and in control of the NFC West, along with their possible playoff future. There are four games left to sort it all out, meaning their season has reached a bit of a turning point.
“Not the next four, this next one,” Cardinals coach Bruce Arians said. “The next one is huge to maintain where we’re at. The sky has not fallen yet. We’re still No. 1, and we’re playing at home (this week). We need to stay there this week and just take them one at a time.”
Arians is disappointed in his team’s performance the last two weeks, but at the same time knows that while the season has hit a bit of a speed bump, the road continues on. The Cardinals are still in the driver’s seat, which is a message he’s imparted on his players.
“He just wants to make sure that we understand the position that we’re in,” Patrick Peterson said of what the coach is telling them. “As a ballclub, we don’t want to piss away this opportunity that we have in front of us.”
Peterson pointed out how last season, the Cardinals struggled early in the season only to get hot late and just miss the postseason; the hope is to avoid an inverse, yet similar fate this time around.
He said there isn’t any concern within the locker room that their chances are slipping away, because every team will go through a rough patch during the season.
But not all struggles are created equal.
“What is concerning is the way we’re losing,” linebacker Kevin Minter said. “There’s a lot of mistakes; mistakes we don’t make at each position.
“It has to turn around, or… it will get bad these last four games.”
How it turns around is the big question. Arizona’s last four opponents are all of the “tough” variety, starting this Sunday with the Kansas City Chiefs at home. That game is followed by a Thursday night game at the St. Louis Rams, a home game against the Seattle Seahawks and then the season finale, on the road against the San Francisco 49ers.
Right about now it would be easy to look at that slate and wonder if there is a win to be found among it, but this team has not lost its confidence.
“I think it’s still there,” Minter said. “We did show some resiliency early in the season. We came back and played good football after the Denver game, we obviously went on a bit of a winning streak. I feel like we can do it again; it’s just you’ve got to re-focus, just get back to it.”
And that’s the silver lining to all of this. While things are not going well now, this team has proven itself plenty capable, having already knocked off some of the NFC’s better teams. So would the players start doubting themselves now?
“No, because they are the same guys that won nine,” Arians said. “The same guys who beat Philly and Dallas and all those teams. You learn why you lost, and you learn why you won, and hopefully you get it corrected at home.”
The quickest way to restore confidence and, perhaps, a bit of order would be to win Sunday. If the Cardinals do that, then all of a sudden the skies brighten and the conversations turn back to playoff positioning rather than playoff chances.
At the same time, though, a loss would be equally damaging.
“I will say this is definitely a turning point,” Peterson said. “This team can go up or this team can take a major step back, and that’s something that we don’t want to do.
“Like I said earlier, this is an opportunity that we do not want to piss away because we had this feeling last year, depending on other teams to help us get in the playoffs. Now we’re in a position of controlling our own destiny; we can’t let this fall to the wayside because you don’t know when you’re going to get these type of seasons back. So we have to make sure these last four games, 16 quarters, every guy on this roster has to put 110 percent in, because that’s what it’s going to take to get us to the playoffs.”