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Desert Dreaming: 2018 Arizona Cardinals Best-Case Scenario

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A game-by-game look at a potential dream season for the 2018 Arizona Cardinals.

Los Angeles Chargers v Arizona Cardinals
David Johnson has his sights set high this season... perhaps league MVP high?
Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

This week, we’ve gone through the Cardinals schedule and offered a prediction of their likely record (7-9), and we’ve taken a trip to the dark side to see what the worst-case scenario might look like (5-11). It’s been an interesting experiment, taking into account the talent on the roster, the schedule, and what we’ve learned about the new coaching staff during the preseason.

Today is the final installment in this series of sorts. Today, we explore what would happen if all the cards were to go our way. Today, we see what a dream season for the 2018 Arizona Cardinals might look like. Just how high can this team fly?

Let’s find out. As always, all scores are relative guesstimates, and the specific game stories are just for fun.

Week 1 – Home vs. Washington Redskins

There are no real expectations for the Cardinals in 2018, but there is a general feeling of optimism in the desert at the beginning of the Steve Wilks era. Week 1 is a good test as Alex Smith, linked to the Cardinals at times in the offseason, comes to town to square off against the team’s (seeming) fallback option, Sam Bradford. However, anyone still pining for Smith is eating their words at the end of this one, as Bradford plays like the guy who carved up the Saints in Week 1 last season, notching a 300-yard game in his desert debut. Smith struggles to get on the same page with his receivers against DC Al Holcomb’s new 4-3 defense as the Redbirds roll in their home debut. Cardinals win, 27-16. Record: 1-0.

Week 2 – Away vs. Los Angeles Rams

The Redbirds face a tough road test in Week 2, as the defending division champs added Ndamukong Suh, Marcus Peters, Aqib Talib, and Brandin Cooks to an already stacked roster featuring Todd Gurley and Aaron Donald. The Redbirds are up to the challenge though, and this one turns into a slugfest as Gurley and DJ trade big plays on the ground and in the air. This one comes down to the wire, with the Cardinals driving down four with under two minutes left. But a miscommunication between Bradford and Chad Williams leads to a fourth-down incompletion. The Rams run the clock down with Gurley, handing the Redbirds a tough first loss. Cardinals lose, 24-20. Record: 1-1.

Week 3 – Home vs. Chicago Bears

Although the Bears are much improved from last year with new additions HC Matt Nagy, Allen Robinson II, Trey Burton, and Khalil Mack, all the new pieces haven’t had time to jell this early in the season. Patrick Peterson, Budda Baker, and a secondary that has yet to allow a TD pass keep the streak alive against the Bears’ second-year QB Mitchell Trubisky, and Bradford, Fitz, and DJ look sharp in front of the home crowd. Cardinals win, 28-10. Record: 2-1.

Week 4 – Home vs. Seattle Seahawks

The Seahawks always seemed to have our number at University of Phoenix Stadium (whoops, State Farm Stadium) under Bruce Arians. Not so under Wilks. Chandler Jones has a monster day against the overmatched Seahawks O-line, and the rest of the front seven holds the Seahawks RBs to less than 50 yards on the ground. Although the secondary does give up its first TD to Russell Wilson, Bradford shreds a Seahawk secondary that’s a shell of its former self after an early-season Earl Thomas trade and DJ puts up a 100-100 game. The home crowd goes wild for a Redbirds rout. Cardinals win, 34-17. Record: 3-1.

Week 5 – Away vs. San Francisco 49ers

The Redbirds have mostly managed to capitalize on a pretty manageable early-season schedule, but things start to get a bit more difficult before the bye week, starting with a road tilt in San Francisco. Fortunately for the Redbirds, Jimmy Garoppolo hasn’t quite managed to recapture the magic from last season, and Alfred Morris hasn’t been able to pick up the slack in the running game after the Jerick McKinnon injury. But the Niners put up a game effort, and the game is close at the half. Cardinals fans get a scare when Bradford stays down after a sack on the first drive of the third quarter, but he only misses one series and hooks up with Fitz for a TD on his return, which prove to be the decisive points as the Redbirds extend their winning streak against the Niners to seven games. Cardinals win, 23-17. Record: 4-1.

Week 6 – Away vs. Minnesota Vikings

The Cardinals are riding high heading into a big Week 6 matchup against a Vikings team with Super Bowl aspirations. The major storyline in this game is obviously Bradford’s return to the team that cast him aside for Kirk Cousins. The Minnesota crowd greet Bradford warmly, but they quickly cool on him as he outplays their pricey new QB. Bradford completes 70% of his passes, including several clutch completions to hometown boy Fitz down the stretch after a Chandler Jones strip-sack of Cousins. With the game on the line, Cardinals K Phil Dawson calmly steps up and drills a 50-yarder as time expires, stunning the Vikes and the NFL. Cardinals win, 22-19. Record: 5-1.

Week 7 – Home vs. Denver Broncos

The Cardinals are a bit bruised and battered after a physical game in Minnesota, but they return home improbably in first place in the NFC West. Unfortunately, they have a short week and a Thursday night game against another elite defense ahead of them. The Broncos look beatable with QB Case Keenum regressing badly from his performance after replacing Bradford in Minnesota last season, but the Cardinals suffer a bit of a letdown after last week’s big win and drop their first home game of the season in an ugly Thursday night affair. But the good news for Cardinals fans is that Bradford says he’s fine after taking a few big hits from Von Miller. Cardinals lose, 17-13. Record: 5-2.

Week 8 – Home vs. San Francisco 49ers

The only thing standing between the Cardinals and their bye week is the winless Niners, who have struggled mightily through a brutal early-season schedule. And fresh off a 10-day layoff after the Thursday night game, there’s no way the Cardinals are going to let the Niners earn their first win in State Farm Stadium. The Cardinals jump out to an early lead after scoring on their first drive and getting a Peterson pick-six on the Niners’ first drive. They don’t look back from there as DJ puts up an all-time fantasy score against Reuben Foster and the Niners defense. It only took eight weeks for the Redbirds to beat the 5.5 wins Vegas had them pegged for. The bye week and a first-place tie for the NFC West division are their reward. Cardinals win, 31-13. Record: 6-2.

Week 10 – Away vs. Kansas City Chiefs

The Cardinals come out of the bye week refreshed and ready to take on a tough second-half slate, starting with a trip to Arrowhead Stadium. The Chiefs’ second-year QB, Patrick Mahomes II, has had an up-and-down first season as a starter—lots of big plays and lots of turnovers. The trend continues against the Cardinals—he follows up an INT to Baker with a big-time TD pass to Sammy Watkins (over Jamar Taylor). But the Cardinals are able to keep up in spite of the hostile crowd, with Bradford playing smart, efficient football against the Chiefs’ underwhelming defense. A Kareem Hunt TD gives the Chiefs a late lead, but Bradford calmly marches the team down the field and throws a game-winning TD pass to Ricky Seals-Jones with less than thirty seconds left. Another Baker INT seals the road victory. Cardinals win, 27-24. Record: 7-2.

Week 11 – Home vs. Oakland Raiders

Coming home after another tough road win, Wilks makes sure there is no letdown against another inferior AFC West opponent. The Raiders are struggling mightily in their first year under new-old coach Jon Gruden, and it continues in Week 11. Derek Carr has a miserable day in the desert, throwing four picks and taking several sacks. Bradford has a field day, topping 350 passing yards without having to worry about the Raiders’ Khalil Mack-less pass rush. The Redbirds are flying high, but the toughest part of their schedule is approaching. Cardinals win, 34-9. Record: 8-2.

Week 12 – Away vs. Los Angeles Chargers

The Redbirds make a second trip to the City of Angels this season to square off against Philip Rivers and the Chargers in a battle of western division leaders. The game is tight for the first three quarters, with neither offense able to do much against two top-five defenses. But, as usually seems to happen in Chargers games, the 4th quarter gets wild, with the Bolts taking the lead after a touchdown by the ageless Antonio Gates, only to see the Cardinals grab the lead right back with a T.J. Logan kickoff return TD. A late Chargers FG sends the game to OT, where the teams trade FGs on their first two possessions. On the Cardinals’ next possession, they seemingly convert a third-and-long with a circus Larry Fitzgerald catch, but the replay booth controversially overturns it. The Cardinals punt, and the Bolts boot a game-winner on their next drive. Cardinals lose, 26-23. Record: 8-3.

Week 13 – Away vs. Green Bay Packers

Week 13 takes the Redbirds from sunny SoCal to the bitter cold of Wisconsin. Aaron Rodgers, healthy and playing like an MVP candidate, stakes the Pack to an early lead (aided by a couple uncharacteristic Cardinals turnovers). Bradford, Fitz, and DJ stage a rally but ultimately fall short, as Rodgers is just too tough to beat at Lambeau. The Redbirds, still atop the NFC West, eye a potential rematch in the playoffs. Cardinals lose, 31-20. Record: 8-4.

Week 14 – Home vs. Detroit Lions

The schedule doesn’t get any easier in Week 14, as Matthew Stafford and a desperate Lions team on the fringe of the NFC playoff race come to town. But with Detroit having no real running game to speak of (as usual), the Redbirds’ stingy secondary is able to do their thing and limit the Lions’ scoring opportunities despite Stafford piling up yardage. On the offensive side of the ball, Wilks uses a run-heavy gameplan to avoid throwing in Darius Slay’s direction. DJ responds by having a 150-yard day. The Redbirds notch another home win and all but eliminate the Lions from the playoff race. Cardinals win, 24-16. Record: 9-4.

Week 15 – Away vs. Atlanta Falcons

Another week, another game against a playoff contender, as Matt Ryan and the Falcons are fighting for a wild card spot in front of a home crowd buoyed by the cheapest beer prices in the league. This is a tight, defensive battle throughout, with both former #1 overall pick QBs completing plenty of short passes but scoring opportunities few and far between. DJ breaks through with a touchdown to tie the game late, but Ryan runs a crisp two-minute drill and has the Falcons in Cardinal territory with under a minute left. A Chandler Jones sack puts the Falcons in dire straits, but then a questionable “lowering the helmet” penalty on Deone Bucannon gifts the Falcons a chipshot game-winning FG. The Cardinals have now dropped three out of four, ceding the division lead back to the Rams. Cardinals lose, 20-17. Record: 9-5.

Week 16 – Home vs. Los Angeles Rams

With both teams at 9-5, this quasi–division championship matchup gets flexed into primetime. Unsurprisingly, this one’s another slobberknocker with plenty of big hits, penalties, and general chippiness. But with 16 weeks to jell and backed by yet another sold-out crowd at State Farm Stadium, the Cardinals are the more composed team this time around. With the game tied late, Aaron Donald gets himself ejected after a brutal-looking hit on Bradford. But as he has all season, Bradford dusts himself off and immediately fires a game-winning TD pass to Chad Williams, who has acquitted himself nicely as the team’s WR2. The champagne will have to wait until next week though, as the Cardinals need a win to be assured of the division title. Cardinals win, 27-20. Record: 10-5.

Week 17 – Away vs. Seattle Seahawks

The Redbirds head to Seattle for their season finale for the second straight year—only this year, a division title is in sight. Even better news for the Redbirds is that the Seahawks—who are languishing alongside the Niners in the NFC West basement—are missing Russell Wilson, who hasn’t been able to stay healthy behind a porous O-line. This one is never in doubt. On the first play of the game, Fitz catches his 92nd pass of the season, passing Tony Gonzalez for second on the all-time receptions list. DJ racks up a second 100-100 game against the Seahawks—which gives him the 1000-1000 season that was his goal. He’s one of the favorites for league MVP with the Cardinals winning the division and earning the #4 seed in the NFC playoffs. Rookie Josh Rosen also gets a bit of playing time in the second half with the Redbirds up big, and he connects with fellow rookie Christian Kirk on his first TD pass and generally looks sharp. Cardinals win, 27-0. Record: 11-5.

Wild Card Round – Home vs. Green Bay Packers

The Packers lost the NFC North title to the Vikings on a tiebreaker, so they head to the desert in the wild card round, just like they did in 2016. This time, there will be no hail marys, no late-game Larry heroics—just a wire-to-wire Redbirds victory, as DJ puts the team on his back and runs roughshod over the Packers D. Cardinals win, 27-20.

Divisional Round – Away vs. New Orleans Saints

The wild card victory earns the Cardinals a trip to the Big Easy to face the NFC’s #1 seed. Despite two top 10 defenses, this one turns into a shootout, with DJ and Alvin Kamara putting up pinball numbers and Drew Brees and Bradford setting a record for highest completion percentage by opposing QBs in a game. In the end, the Saints, with the most balanced roster in the league, prove too much to overcome in the raucous Superdome. But the Cardinals can hold their heads high knowing they lost to the eventual Super Bowl champions, as the Saints defeat the upstart Houston Texans in Minneapolis.

Offseason

The Redbirds rack up postseason hardware: DJ wins Offensive Player of the Year (barely losing league MVP to Deshaun Watson), Chandler Jones leads the league in sacks once again, Sam Bradford wins Comeback Player of the Year, and Steve Wilks finishes second in Coach of the Year voting (to the Texans’ Bill O’Brien).

The team’s QB situation heading into 2019 is enviable, with several teams interested in Bradford for a 1st-rounder, Rosen looking good in limited action, and Mike Glennon retiring to become the spokesman for a real-life Neckflix company.

Oh, and Fitz decides to come back for another year.

Final Thoughts

An 11-5 season, a division title, a playoff run, and some postseason hardware—I think this is as good as the Cardinals can hope for in 2018. I don’t quite think we can be one of those 12- or 13-win, #1 seed-type teams, but I think Cardinals fans everywhere would love a season like this.

Do you agree, Cardinals fans? Is 11 wins as good as it gets? Or do you think we should dream higher? Is a Super Bowl in the cards? Dare to dream in the comments.