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Loss of Tyrann Mathieu hurts, but does not kill Cardinals

Arizona Cardinals' Tyrann Mathieu warms up before an NFL football game against the Philadelphia Eagles, Sunday, Dec. 20, 2015, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

This is probably about the time when you are wondering why the Arizona Cardinals are not allowed to have nice things.

Though they clinched the NFC West Sunday night with a win in Philadelphia, a victory that gave them a franchise record 12 on the season, the Cardinals paid a heavy price when Tyrann Mathieu suffered a torn ACL intercepting a Sam Bradford pass with less than three minutes remaining.

Think about that for a second. Mathieu suffered the season-ending injury intercepting a pass. He was doing something really good and instead of it putting an exclamation mark on what should have been a great night, the play instead put a question mark on the rest of the season.

A viable Defensive Player of the Year candidate, Mathieu was in the midst of a healthy and dominant season in which he amassed 89 total tackles, five interceptions, one sack and 16 passes defensed. A dynamic defender, he was also one of the team’s emotional leaders, and his injury will certainly hit the team hard.

So, how do they recover?

“We go to work Wednesday. Nothing’s changed,” Cardinals coach Bruce Arians said. “They’re not going to cancel the game. We’ve been through this many, many times.”

The coach is right about it. All of it.

The team will still have to play the Green Bay Packers this Sunday and the Seattle Seahawks the next one. The playoffs are still a go, and Arizona is still in position to lock up the NFC’s No. 2 seed and a first-round bye.

Also, the Cardinals have been through this type of situation many, many times.

In 2013, they lost Jonathan Cooper to a broken leg during the preseason and Mathieu to a torn ACL and LCL in Week 14 while fighting for a playoff berth that would never come.

In 2014, Darnell Dockett was lost during the preseason, while quarterbacks Carson Palmer and Drew Stanton were each unavailable for the playoffs due to knee injuries. Other players missed time throughout the year with lesser ailments.

Now, in 2015, Mathieu is on the shelf again, and the question is how will the Cardinals, a legitimate Super Bowl contender, move on and find continued success without one of their best players.

It won’t necessarily be easy, but it is possible.

While the Cardinals are certainly worse off without Mathieu than with him, the defensive backfield is one area of the team where they are just overflowing with quality and depth.

“Jerraud (Powers) will move into nickel,” Arians said on what adjustments will be made in Mathieu’s absence. “We’ll see what roster moves we make, if we make any. Tony (Jefferson) played well. D.J. (Swearinger) played well. Hopefully, we’ll get Rashad (Johnson) back and just keep on moving.”

Over the next couple of days you can expect the Cardinals to express their sadness over Mathieu’s situation along with a resolution that they will be able to win without him. In fact, it’s already begun, with Tony Jefferson, Justin Bethel and Patrick Peterson among those who have tweeted out their support. A defensive captain, Peterson said, “We have a new motivation. Do it for #32.”

No doubt the Cardinals would like to continue winning without Mathieu and for Mathieu, but can they? Will the Cardinals continue on their path to Super Bowl 50 or is this the kind of bump in the road that will send them off it?

We’ll of course get a better idea Sunday when the Cardinals host the Green Bay Packers in their first game sans Mathieu, but in terms of players than absolutely cannot afford to lose, he is not really the guy.

He’s not Carson Palmer.

Though Arizona’s defense is ranked eighth in the NFL and has generally performed well this season, it is not the strength of this year’s Cardinals.

No, offense is what has carried the team to this point, and all playoff hopes were always going to come down to how much further it can take them.

The Cardinals average the most yards per game of any team and are second in the NFL in points per game. Palmer will not be the NFL’s MVP, but he is playing at that kind of level. And though the receivers — specifically John Brown — had a tough go of it Sunday night, there has yet to be a secondary this season that can slow them down.

Will Arizona’s defense be a little worse without Mathieu, thus forcing the offense to have to be even better? Maybe.

Can Arizona’s offense be even better than it has been? Probably.

Are the Cardinals, without Mathieu but with a great offense, still Super Bowl contenders? Absolutely.

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