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For Arizona Cardinals, the ‘playoffs really begin now’

Arizona Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald, right, is pushed out of bounds by St. Louis Rams cornerback Lamarcus Joyner, center, after catching a pass for a 23-yard gain as Rams' William Hayes, left, watches, during the second quarter of an NFL football game on Sunday, Dec. 6, 2015, in St. Louis. (AP Photo/L.G. Patterson)

TEMPE, Ariz. — For much of the first part of the season, people pointed to the Arizona Cardinals’ weak schedule as reason to doubt them.

Their record, it was surmised, was inflated because they feasted on the NFL’s lesser teams.

There may actually be some truth to that, given that of their first eight opponents (against whom the Cardinals went 6-2), just one — the Pittsburgh Steelers — is of playoff caliber.

At any rate, most concerns and doubts have since been assuaged as the Cardinals went to Seattle and beat the Seahawks and knocked off the Cincinnati Bengals at home, yet if that still has not been enough to sell anyone on the team, this final stretch of games should do the trick.

Beginning Thursday at home against the Minnesota Vikings, the Cardinals will play four straight games against teams who could all reach the postseason. After the Vikings they hit the road for a date with the Philadelphia Eagles, then return home for games against the Green Bay Packers and Seahawks.

For a team hoping to earn one of the conference’s top two seeds and a first-round bye in the playoffs, they’re all important.

“The playoffs really begin now, we’re really trying to work towards home field advantage now so we’ve got to stack them,” linebacker Kevin Minter said. “We don’t want to go to the Green Bays or go to the Carolinas later on in the playoffs, so every game is important right now.”

At 10-2, if the playoffs started this week the Cardinals would have that first round off, though they trail the 12-0 Panthers in the standings and thus would have to play a road game if the higher seed won in every round.

Arizona is also three games up on the Seahawks in the NFC West and has a two-game lead for the No. 2 seed, ahead of the Packers and Vikings. The standings are starting to take shape, but they are in no way set.

“Yeah, we know where we sit. We know how important each game is. We know how important this game is,” quarterback Carson Palmer said. “You can’t help but notice it, know it, and hear about it. Like B.A. said [Monday], a couple times, this is the playoffs. This is that next game, ‘you’ve got to win’ game type of feel that we’re going into this game with because we know where they sit, we know where we sit and we can think about that because this game is that important.

“This game means so much for that seed that we’re all shooting for. We’re very focused on that and understand all the circumstances around us.”

That’s just it.

With only 16 games on the schedule each carries great importance. But as the Cardinals head into their final quarter of games, it’s tough not to look at each matchup as part of a bigger picture, one that they are hoping will lead to a spot in Super Bowl 50.

What’s strange, though, is that given how any of the team’s last four opponents could reach the postseason, it’s worth wondering if the approach may change a bit. It’s not uncommon for teams to limit their schemes, making sure not to show a prospective opponent everything in the arsenal.

Cardinals coach Bruce Arians said that will not be the case now, adding, “there’s enough in the playbook to open up a whole bunch of new [expletive].”

If the Cardinals had their playoff seeding locked up and the games mattered little, his attitude would probably be different. But while the Cardinals are in excellent shape through 13 weeks, there is still plenty more work to do.

And along with improving their standing, winning games against teams they could see again in the playoffs would send a message.

“We’re trying to send a message every game,” Minter said, acknowledging how these final four games could help. “This organization’s different — we’re not the same old Cardinals. We have something to prove and I feel like we’ve been doing that so far. We’ve got to continue.”

Win out, and the Cardinals will finish with a franchise record 14 wins, and with a little luck possibly the No. 1 overall seed in the NFC. Lose out and things could get dicey. Have a result somewhere in between those options and, well, we’ll see.

In that context, chances are the Cardinals would rather be playing some of the league’s lesser teams to close out the regular season. Given that they have no choice in the matter they will of course view the slate in a positive manner, making sure plenty can be gained over this last month.

Arians appreciates the difficult set of games because he said it makes it really easy to practice every day, and Mathieu said it will help the team keep the right mindset and not let little things slip now toward the end of the season.

They could also, the third-year pro said, gain some intelligence that could prove useful in the playoffs.

“So it’s important for us to play our best football,” he said. “Gather as much information as we can from these teams. Most of these teams are probably going to be in the playoffs, the next couple of weeks, so it’s important for us to have all our information and be well-prepared for them.”

These games could also make sure the Cardinals are well-prepared for what lies ahead. Just six teams reach the postseason in each conference, and once that tournament starts, anything can happen. Through 12 games Arizona has proven itself to be one of the league’s better teams and, barring a total collapse, will reach the playoffs for the second consecutive year as one of the favorites to make a run. Their opponents in these last four games, however, are fighting for their playoff lives.

“Well we’re going to be battle-tested by the time we get to the beginning of January, dealing with teams that have a lot at stake,” receiver Larry Fitzgerald said. “So it’s great. You couldn’t have made the schedule any better to see exactly where we are heading into the playoffs.”

Stories for pre-game reading

Steve Keim is impressed with Michael Floyd, but says any contract extension will have to wait.

Playing on Thursday instead of Sunday presents different challenges for the Cardinals (and Vikings, too).

Fox Sports gave the Cardinals an ‘A’ in their third-quarter report card.

Paige Dimakos chatted with linebacker Kevin Minter in this week’s episode of “Four Downs.”

Justin Bethel said his recent contract extension is life-changing.

Was Adrian Peterson nearly a Cardinal? Craig Grialou writes on how the Vikings RB said AZ grabbed his attention over the summer.

Craig Morgan put together an excellent piece on how the NFLPA must decide if it can live with Thursday games.

Speaking of Peterson, the Cardinals are well aware he is ‘a threat every time he touches’ the ball.

David Johnson and Kerwynn Williams are maintaining the Cardinals’ ground game success.

ESPN’s FPI has the Cardinals as the Super Bowl favorite, so there’s that.

Craig Morgan also writes on how the Cardinals are on the verge of creating a full-blown Valley frenzy.

Miscellany

– Thursday is the Cardinals’ fourth primetime game of the season. They are 3-0 thus far on national TV, with a road win over the Seattle Seahawks (Sun. night) along with home victories over the Baltimore Ravens (Mon. night) and Cincinnati Bengals (Sun. night). They will have one more primetime game, next Sunday night in Philadelphia against the Eagles. Heading into Thursday, the Cardinals are 5-2 in primetime under Bruce Arians.

-A total of 16 different Cardinals have scored at least one touchdown this season, which is the highest total in the NFL.

– Over the last two games, opponents have converted just one of 21 third-down attempts against the Cardinals.

– Carson Palmer is one touchdown pass away from tying Kurt Warner’s franchise record of 30, set in 2008.

– A win Thursday would be the Cardinals’ seventh in a row, giving the 2015 team the longest winning streak in the franchise’s Arizona tenure. The longest winning streak in franchise history is 10 games, which was accomplished by the 1948 Cardinals.

– Larry Fitzgerald is nine catches shy of 100 for the season. He has tallied at least 100 receptions in a season twice before, and is aiming to become the seventh player in NFL history to reach the century mark in three different seasons.

– Rookie RB David Johnson is one touchdown shy of 10 for the season, which would tie a franchise single-season record for a rookie set in 1979 by Ottis Anderson and in 2008 by Tim Hightower.

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