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With Carson Palmer, Cardinals are a different team entering playoffs

(AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)

TEMPE, Ariz. — Going into the playoffs last season, there was plenty of talk about the “next man up” and how the Arizona Cardinals were confident they could put together a deep postseason run despite all the injuries they were dealing with.

But really, everyone knew while the team may have genuinely hoped they could overcome everything the football gods had thrown at them, the truth is it was going to be very difficult to keep winning. It was understandably not talked about before or after the team’s final game — the last thing a team wants to do is give itself an excuse for losing — but at the same time, no one was oblivious to the situation.

“Last year, going into the playoffs, we didn’t have a good attitude,” head coach Bruce Arians said, noting how this year’s team has a different attitude heading into the playoffs. “We were probably a very tentative team, knowing that we were going to struggle to score points, rather than coming in as one of the top offenses in the league and one of the better defenses in the league. This is a much different football team.”

How different?

Last season, Arizona entered the postseason with the league’s 24th-ranked offense in yards. They averaged 19.4 points per game behind a revolving door of quarterbacks and a running game that finished 31st in the league.

Now, they enter the playoffs with the league’s top-ranked offense in terms of yards, and their 30.6 points per game is second in the NFL. They are also eighth in the league in rushing yards.

Defensively, last season the Cardinals were also 24th in yards allowed, though they surrendered just 18.7 points per game, which ranked fifth.

Now, they are ranked fifth in yards allowed, with their 19.6 points given up per game placing them in a tie for seventh.

It’s not exactly comparing apples and oranges, but at the same time, there is little comparison between the team that lost to the Carolina Panthers 27-16 in the Wild Card Round and the one that is viewed by Las Vegas the favorite to win Super Bowl 50.

“I just think we’re more equipped to the situation,” cornerback Jerraud Powers said. “Last year it was a bunch of the leaders and the veterans that are here hadn’t been in a playoff game.”

Powers pointed to how Patrick Peterson and Michael Floyd, among others, had never experienced the intensity of the NFL postseason.

“I remember after walking off, in Carolina, walking off the field, I looked at Pat and was like, ‘Now you know what it takes to get here. You have to play at a different level or whatnot,'” he added. “I think this year’s group, with the young guys from the last two years now considered veterans, I think they’ve taken heed to it and I think you see a more calm-natured team that’s just ready for the challenge of whatever it is.”

While not a necessity for a deep playoff run, experience past Week 17 certainly does not hurt. Most of the team was around for last year’s disappointment, and many of the players who weren’t — such as guard Mike Iupati, linebacker Dwight Freeney and defensive lineman Cory Redding — have seen more than their fair share of postseason action.

Freeney and Iupati have even appeared in the Super Bowl, with the former earning a ring with the Indianapolis Colts after a 29-17 win over the Chicago Bears in Super Bowl XLI in 2007.

More important and crucial than experience, however, is that Carson Palmer, the team’s Pro Bowl and record-setting quarterback who threw for 4,671 yards and 35 touchdowns this season, is healthy.

“It’s a dream come true. As the season starts, you dream of being in this position,” the qurterback said. “You always want to make the playoffs, but to have that first-round bye and a chance to play all your games at home is pretty special. So, it’s a dream come true.”

Last season, Palmer was sidelined with a torn ACL, and his backup, Drew Stanton, was also out with a knee injury. Without them, Ryan Lindley got the start under center, and he completed just 16-of-28 passes for 82 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions in a game that saw the Cardinals muster just 78 yards of net offense, a playoff record low.

Receiver Larry Fitzgerald said he did not think the team was tentative then, but understands they weren’t themselves.

“But just not having Carson, I don’t think we had a full shot to really do what we were really capable of doing,” he said. “I think it was more just, we were a bit frustrated that we were going in, like, undermanned. This year it’s a completely different vibe.”

The Cardinals will be without Pro Bowl defensive back Tyrann Mathieu, whose season ended with a torn ACL in Week 15, and are likely to not have Redding, either, due to an ankle injury. Outside of those two — and defensive lineman Corey Peters, who was lost for the season during training camp — Arizona will next take the field with a pretty healthy roster.

“That’s all you could ask for, is a shot to go out there and play your game,” Fitzgerald said.

Just as the team’s injury troubles impacted its confidence going into last year’s playoffs, this year’s health does too, only in a positive way.

“We’re a lot more confident, that’s for sure,” defensive lineman Calais Campbell said. “The belief is strong in the locker room, the guys are hungry.”

There may be a sense of unfinished business given how things transpired last season, and with roughly a week until they open their playoff run at University of Phoenix Stadium, the feeling is more of excitement than concern or disappointment.

There are plenty of reasons for that, of course, but the main one is that No. 3 will be on the field leading the way.

“Quarterbacks, that’s key,” offensive coordinator Harold Goodwin said. “That’s key to being a head coach, that’s key to success in this league. We can talk about defense and all that stuff, if you don’t have a quarterback it’s going to be tough sailing.

“Been there, done that in a Super Bowl myself when the quarterback was not up to par, and we lost, and the other team with the good quarterback won. The quarterback drives this league, I don’t care what anybody says. We’ve got ours, and he’s playing pretty good right now.”

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