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NFC playoff picture: For the Arizona Cardinals, the playoffs start this week

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While there are still three weeks left in the regular season, the Arizona Cardinals have to get into playoff mode now to ensure they have life in January.

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

While the fanbase focuses on the idea of the playoffs starting in January, the reality for the Arizona Cardinals is the playoffs started last week.

Sure, the Cardinals are a win away from clinching a playoff berth and making all the stress and pains of the 2014 season flush away, but even with the M.A.S.H. unit of talent missing from the roster, the Cardinals and their fans should still want more.

That's why from tonight against the St. Louis Rams through their road war with the San Francisco 49ers to end the regular season, the Cardinals need to be in playoff mode -- fighting, scratching and clawing for their lives not knowing if there will be a game to play next week.

Why is it so important for Arizona to continue winning now, not trying to get hot in the playoffs?

The Cardinals need to maintain a stranglehold on a first round-bye and home-field advantage in the NFC. If that means "dropping" down to the No. 2 seed, even that is better than finishing as a wild card.

The Cardinals  3-3 on the road through six games this season, averaging 19.6 points per game and surrendering 22.2 points per game; at home, they are 7-0, averaging 22.4 points and giving up a paltry 15 points per game.

Most teams play better at home than they do on the road. But the way the Cardinals seem to regress on offense and defense when away from University of Phoenix Stadium is troubling, and two of their final three games are on the road.

That means these games are just as important as playoff games, because the Cardinals are playing for their playoff lives.

A loss to St. Louis, coupled with a Seahawks win over what looks like a defeated 49ers squad means the Seahawks are now in the lead for the NFC West. The Cardinals would be looking at the No. 5 seed in the NFC playoffs.

Then Arizona has Seattle at home. If you are a team that is going to be winning division championships and playing late into January, these games are games you win, no matter who the opponent is.

No matter what happens in St. Louis, the Cardinals can rebound to regain control of the division with a win over the Seahawks at home, but that still leaves a pesky road game against a 49ers team that likely will be playing for nothing... or everything.

No matter what, the Cardinals want to spend January in Arizona, playing football, because if they have to go elsewhere, they'll likely be spending January in Arizona, watching football.