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Return to the glory days: 2020 Arizona Cardinals best-case scenario

It seems like we might get an actual NFL season this year. That alone seems like a dream. But if we can dare to dream bigger, here is the best we can hope for from our Cardinals this season.

NFL: Arizona Cardinals-Training Camp
Kliff Kingsbury and Kyler Murray are the future of the Arizona Cardinals. Does the future start this year?
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Even amidst a country roiling with hurricanes, civil unrest, and the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, it’s looking more and more likely that we’ll at least get the start of the 2020 NFL season here in a couple weeks. Small miracles. But that means it’s time for my annual predictions! As usual, I’ll start with the best-case scenario before moving onto the worst-case scenario, ending with my actual predictions right before the season kicks off.

The Arizona Cardinals are entering Year 2 of the Kliff Kingsbury/Kyler Murray era. Year 1 was an obvious improvement over the disastrous Steve Wilks/Josh Rosen pairing of the year before. (Can you believe I actually had to look up Steve Wilks’s name?) But a 5-10-1 record was still mildly disappointing, and the expectation is that this will be at least a .500 team—if not challenge for a spot in the expanded playoff field.

But can Cardinals fans dare to dream even higher than that? Today, we’ll explore the best-case scenario for the Cardinals this season. Can this team recapture the high-flying glory days of years past? Let’s find out! (Note that all scores and storylines below are just for fun.)

Week 1 – Away vs. San Francisco 49ers

The Redbirds face a stiff test right off the bat with a visit to Northern California to take on the reigning NFC champs. The two matchups last season were close, but the Niners got the season sweep, ending an 8-game winning streak for the Cardinals in the rivalry. One of the Cardinals’ main goals for 2020 will be to ensure they don’t suffer another sweep. The Niners lost a few pieces in the offseason, but they are still the favorites in the NFC West. This Week 1 matchup is a close, back-and-forth affair like the two matchups last season—albeit without any fans in attendance at Levi’s Stadium. That’s a good thing for Kyler Murray, who hooks up with DeAndre Hopkins for a 1st-quarter TD—hopefully the first of many. Raheem Mostert scores a pair of TDs for the home team, and Kenyan Drake adds one on the ground for the Redbirds. This one is a nail-biter, and it comes down to a 45-yard FG attempt for Zane Gonzalez with just seconds left on the clock. The former Sun Devil nails it—twice after an attempted icing. The silence of the empty stadium is palpable as the Cardinals shock the NFL. Cardinals win, 26-23. Record: 1-0.

Week 2 – Home vs. Washington Football Team

Things get easier in Week 2, as the Redbirds get their home opener against a Washington team besieged by controversy. Washington is also led by a 2nd-year QB, albeit one whose rookie season was not nearly as impressive as Kyler’s. Dwayne Haskins and Co. are outmatched from the jump at State Farm Stadium, as the home team races out to a 17-0 1st quarter lead in front of several thousand fans. Kyler and Hopkins hook up for a second TD in as many weeks, and Kyler runs one in himself. The defense looks much improved from last season, with Chandler Jones sacking Haskins twice while #8 overall pick Isaiah Simmons adds a sack and an interception himself. Scary Terry McLaurin does get loose late for a long TD, but the game had already been decided. Cardinals win, 31-16. Record: 2-0.

Week 3 – Home vs. Detroit Lions

Next up is a rematch of last season’s Week 1 tie with the Detroit Lions. Matthew Stafford is back healthy and picks up where he left off in the first half of last season, slinging a couple 1st half TDs to Kenny Golladay and Marvin Jones Jr.—even with Patrick Peterson in the lineup, the secondary is still a work in progress. Unlike last season, however, Kyler has the Redbirds offense clicking early as well, with 1st-half TD passes of his own to Larry Fitzgerald and Christian Kirk. The teams continue to trade points into the second half, when a Zane Gonzalez FG with just over a minute left puts the Cardinals up 27-24 and just needing a single stop to get a third-straight win. Unfortunately, the Lions get into FG range after a questionable PI call on Byron Murphy Jr., and Matt Prater nails the 55-yarder to send the game to OT. Both teams trade punts in OT and it looks like this one is headed for a 27-27 tie for the second year in a row. But then Jordan Hicks strips the ball from Lions rookie D’Andre Swift around midfield, which is the break the Cardinals need. Gonzalez drills his second game-winner of the young season as the Redbirds remain undefeated. The (limited) home crowd goes wild. Cardinals win, 30-27. Record: 3-0.

Week 4 – Away vs. Carolina Panthers

The Cardinals have another rematch from last season in Week 4, although this year the game against the Panthers is in Carolina. The Panthers are now led by Teddy Bridgewater—thankfully, Kyle “Cardinal Killer” Allen was traded in the offseason. Although the offense (led once again by Christian McCaffrey) is humming along, the Panthers are 0-3 because their defense is one of the worst in the league—just what Kyler and Co. want to see. Although the season is still very young, Kyler puts his name into the MVP conversation by putting up over 400 combined yards and 4 TDs—in only three quarters, as the Cardinals don’t call a single passing play in the 4th quarter with the game out of hand. The Panthers do get a couple of garbage time scores, but the Cardinals get their revenge in this one, winning by the same score that they lost by last season. After four weeks, the Cardinals stand atop the NFC West as one of the handful of unbeaten teams remaining in the league. Cardinals win, 38-20. Record: 4-0.

Week 5 – Away vs. New York Jets

This has “trap game” written all over it—it’s a 10:00 a.m. body clock game on the East Coast the week before a monumental MNF showdown against the also-undefeated Dallas Cowboys. The team says the right things all throughout the week but, unsurprisingly, they struggle badly out of the gate. Kyler loses a fumble (his first of the season) on the opening drive, and Zane Gonzalez misses a chip shot (also his first) on the next possession. On the other side, the Jets aren’t exactly an offensive juggernaut, but they turn the Kyler fumble into a short Le’Veon Bell TD and put together a FG drive to take a 10-0 lead after one quarter. Sloppy play on both sides mars the second quarter, but the Cardinals manage a FG to go into the half down 10-3. The Cardinals add another FG in the third, but Sam Darnold hooks up with Chris Herndon (that same old trouble with TEs) for a TD to push the Jets lead to 17-6. But the Cardinals get the break they need in the 4th quarter—Budda Baker picks off Darnold for his first career INT, taking it to the house to cut the deficit to 17-13. Then the Redbirds get a stop and the ball back deep in their own territory with 2:00 left and no timeouts. Plenty of time. A beautifully designed screen to Drake gets the team to midfield, and a couple sideline strikes to Hopkins and Fitz get them into the red zone. Then a couple runs to drain the clock a bit before the Jets forget about Dan Arnold, who snags the game-winning TD. Kyler makes it look that easy—for one drive at least—to keep the Cardinals undefeated. Cardinals win, 20-17. Record: 5-0.

Week 6 – Away vs. Dallas Cowboys

The hype for this MNF matchup between the last two undefeated teams in the league is massive. Both Kyler Murray and Dak Prescott are playing at an MVP level, Kenyan Drake and Ezekiel Elliott are among the league leaders in rushing, and DeAndre Hopkins and Amari Cooper are both having big seasons. To say this is the most important Cardinals game in years would be an understatement. They come ready to play, too, with Kyler and Hopkins hooking up for another TD on their opening drive. The Cowboys are not to be denied, however, and Zeke bowls his way into the end zone on the next drive to tie it up. The game that follows is an energetic, entertaining affair, with plenty of big plays and few mistakes on both sides. Fitz and Drake both score TDs, and while Patrick Peterson keeps Cooper mostly quiet, Michael Gallup burns the Cardinals secondary for a couple TDs on the other side of the field. It’s 24-24 when Zeke rumbles into the end zone for his second TD to give the Cowboys a 31-24 lead with only a few minutes remaining. Can Kyler lead yet another clutch drive? He calmly leads the Cardinals into the red zone with under a minute left, setting the stage for more late-game heroics. It comes down to a 4th-and-goal from the 8. DeMarcus Lawrence beats D.J. Humphries off the edge. Lawrence doesn’t quite get there, but it forces Kyler to hurry the throw… which sails just past Hopkins’s fingers in the back of the end zone. The Cardinals are undefeated no more. Cardinals lose, 31-24. Record: 5-1.

Week 7 – Home vs. Seattle Seahawks

The Redbirds return home to face a division rival coming off a bye on a short week—the schedule makers did them no favors here. The Seahawks are 4-1 (with their lone loss also to the Cowboys) and Russell Wilson is playing at his usual Pro Bowl level. Understandably, the Cardinals come out somewhat flat in this one—Kyler misses a few passes he could make in his sleep, Hopkins has a couple drops, and Drake loses a fumble, which Bobby Wagner scoops up returns for a TD. On the defensive side, a miscommunication in the secondary leads to a long DK Metcalf TD, after which Patrick Peterson and Budda Baker are seen barking at each other. Still, Kyler finds old reliable Fitz in the end zone near halftime to make it 17-10 Seahawks at the half. The teams trade rushing TD in the third to set up a critical 4th-down decision in the red zone for the Cardinals halfway through the 4th quarter. It’s 4th-and-goal from the 3 and the players and (limited) home crowd want to go for it. But Kingsbury elects to kick the FG, trusting his defense and knowing how clutch Kyler has been in the two-minute drill this season. Instead, Wilson and the Seahawks grind the clock all the way down and end the game on kneeldowns in Cardinals territory. The Redbirds enter their bye week at 5-2 and tied with the Niners for second in the NFC West. Cardinals lose, 24-20. Record: 5-2.

Week 9 – Home vs. Miami Dolphins

Reeling a bit after losing two straight, the Cardinals get just what the doctor ordered with the 2-6 Miami Dolphins coming to town. Rookie Tua Tagovailoa has taken the reins from Ryan Fitzpatrick, but even the team’s impressive draft haul and massive free agent spending spree can’t overcome a brutal early-season schedule. Tua hasn’t looked out of place as a starter, but the team’s new-look running game hasn’t been able to get started, and DeVante Parker hasn’t been able to build on last season’s breakout. They also have one of the worst front sevens in the league—which the Cardinals take full advantage of, with both Kenyan Drake and Chase Edmonds rushing for over 100 yards apiece with 3 TDs combined. The defense has its most impressive outing in years, racking up half a dozen sacks and picking off Tua three times—including a pick-six from DROY frontrunner Isaiah Simmons. The Redbirds control both lines of scrimmage and the game clock for all 60 minutes to end the skid as they enter the toughest part of their schedule. Cardinals win, 31-13. Record: 6-2.

Week 10 – Home vs. Buffalo Bills

The next AFC East opponent is no pushover, however, as the first-place Bills are 6-3 with one of the best rushing attacks and defenses in the league. No one will ever confuse Josh Allen for Jim Kelly as a passer, but Stefon Diggs and former Cardinal John Brown are dangerous weapons and pose a challenge for a Cardinals secondary on its third starting CB opposite Patrick Peterson this season. But the Redbirds boast an improved run defense of their own, and the rushing attack continues to be a sneaky strength. Unsurprisingly, this one turns into a slugfest with both teams attempting to bludgeon the other into submission. Neither QB throws a TD pass, but they both run one in. Andy Isabella also scores one on a jet sweep. But eventually, the Bills’ rushing attack proves too much to overcome, with Devin Singletary and rookie Zach Moss both rushing for 4th-quarter TDs as the Cardinals’ front seven fades. The Bills hand the Cardinals their second home loss of the season and third loss in four games overall. Cardinals lose, 21-17. Record: 6-3.

Week 11 – Away vs. Seattle Seahawks

For the second time this season, the Cardinals face the Seahawks on a short week, this time on a Thursday. Going into Week 11, there is a logjam atop the NFC West, with the Cardinals, Niners, and Seahawks all within a half game of each other. The Seahawks hold the tiebreakers, and a second loss to them might put the Cardinals too far behind to catch up. Even though they’re 6-3, there’s still an air of desperation around the Redbirds. They know they need this game. Fortunately, they always seem to play well in Seattle—and that’s even with a full crowd of raging Seahawks faithful. There will be no such crowd in Seattle for this game. After largely taking the backseat to the running game the previous two weeks, Kyler comes out at full throttle in this one, going over 200 yards passing with two TDs in the first half. But Russell Wilson also has a big game as this matchup turns into a QB duel with the home team up at the end of the 3rd quarter. But the lack of the usual crowd noise allows the offense to run the no huddle more effectively and they take advantage of a gassed Seahawks defense to rally for the win in the 4th quarter on Kyler’s fourth TD of the day. The Redbirds find themselves alone in first place in the NFC West after 11 weeks. Cardinals win, 28-23. Record: 7-3.

Week 12 – Away vs. New England Patriots

After the win in Seattle, the Cardinals have to pack their bags and fly all the way out east to face the Patriots. At least they have 10 days to prepare for this one. And they’ll need all the time they can get, as Bill Belichick once again has put together a top-10 defense. Their offense is middle of the pack with Cam Newton not able to recapture his MVP form and an unintimidating set of weapons at the skill positions. But Foxboro is never an easy place to play, as Kyler finds out in his first trip to Gillette Stadium on a bitterly cold late November day. Stephon Gilmore keeps DeAndre Hopkins in check, Christian Kirk pulls another vanishing act, and the RBs can’t find room to run. On the other side, James White does his best CMC impression, topping 100 yards through the air and beating Isaiah Simmons for a TD. All in all, this is a game to forget for the Cardinals, who fall to 7-4. They’ve now lost four of six games to slip out of first place in the NFC West. Cardinals lose, 24-16. Record: 7-4.

Week 13 – Home vs. Los Angeles Rams

The Cardinals have yet to face one NFC West foe this season—the Rams, who make the short trip to the desert for this Week 13 showdown. Years of poor salary cap management have hit the Rams hard this season, as they languish in the basement in the division at 4-7. But Aaron Donald hasn’t gone anywhere, and Jared Goff is still capable of putting up big numbers with weapons like Cooper Kupp, Robert Woods, and Tyler Higbee to throw to. In fact, that’s just what he does as he proceeds to torch the Cardinals secondary all day. But Kyler Murray is more than a match for Goff and the Cardinals have their own version of Sean McVay in Kliff Kingsbury. This one turns into a shootout much like the 2018 version of the Rams. There are gadget plays, fake kicks, return touchdowns, and big plays galore. When the dust settles, the Cardinals prevail in a game that makes fantasy football fans around the country very, very happy. Cardinals win, 38-34. Record: 8-4.

Week 14 – Away vs. New York Giants

A lot of these non-divisional matchups seem familiar, don’t they? The Redbirds make a return trip to the Meadowlands to face a somewhat punchy Giants team. The G-Men aren’t in the playoff picture, but Daniel Jones, Saquon Barkley, and the offense are playing well, and the defense is solid enough. No easy task on a frigid December afternoon. But just like last year, the Cardinals are ready for this road test. They again rely on the run amidst the swirling winds, and Chase Edmonds finds the end zone in MetLife Stadium for a second straight year. (Just the one this time, though.) After a rough week against the Rams, the defense gets back on track, and former Giant Devon Kennard sacks Jones twice. Saquon goes over 100 yards and gets a couple TDs, but the Redbirds are happy to come away with the win as they get closer to clinching a playoff berth. Cardinals win, 27-21. Record: 9-4.

Week 15 – Home vs. Philadelphia Eagles

The Cardinals face one more non-divisional opponent before ending the season with two straight against NFC West foes. The Eagles come to town floating around .500 and on the very fringes of NFC playoff picture. They’ve faced a brutal schedule and have had their usual injury troubles—although Carson Wentz has remained healthy all year. They’re a desperate team, and a dangerous one—but the Cardinals also desperately need this win to keep pace in the NFC West race. As has happened often this season, this game turns into a shootout. The Redbirds defense is improved, yes, but it’s still in the bottom half of the league and the second cornerback spot has been a problem all season. But Kyler Murray is still in the MVP conversation and he’s more than up for a QB duel with Wentz—and Kyler has better, healthier weapons. In fact, DeAndre Hopkins has the kind of monster day he used to make look routine in Houston, racking up over 150 yards and 2 TDs. It’s not a pretty win, but the Cardinals will take it to set up a clash with the 49ers in Week 16 that could go a long way toward determining the NFC West winner. Cardinals win, 34-28. Record: 10-4.

Week 16 – Home vs. San Francisco 49ers

It should come as no surprise that this game gets flexed into the Sunday night primetime slot with the Niners at 9-5 and both teams still in the hunt for the NFC West title. The Niners haven’t quite been able to recapture the dominant form that took them to within a few plays of a Super Bowl victory last season, but they’re still a very good football team. Deebo Samuel is in the midst of a breakout season, and Raheem Mostert and Tevin Coleman lead another top-10 rushing offense. The defense is, again, a strength of the team, and it gives Kyler Murray and the Cardinals fits on this day, with Nick Bosa taking him down twice and Richard Sherman picking him off twice. The rushing game gets completely shut down, resulting in a high-volume, low-efficiency day from Kyler. It’s a close affair and the Cardinals are up 21-17 after three quarters, but Robbie Gould boots three long FGs in the 4th quarter to give the Niners the victory and keep their season alive. The Cardinals head into Week 17 needing help from these same 49ers to have a chance at an improbable division title. Cardinals lose, 26-21. Record: 10-5.

Week 17 – Away vs. Los Angeles Rams

The Cardinals travel west to face the Rams, who upset the Seahawks in Seattle in Week 16 to prevent them from clinching the NFC West title. The 11-4 Seahawks face the 10-5 49ers at the same time as this Cardinals/Rams clash. The tiebreaker scenarios are too complicated to think about, so the Redbirds focus on the only thing they can: winning this game. The 7-8 Rams are eliminated from playoff contention, but Sean McVay is playing all his starters as they try to finish the season at .500. This game plays out exactly like the first one, with both teams pulling out all the stops. Rookie Cam Akers has taken over as the Rams lead back, and he goes over 100 yards and scores both via the ground and air—a feat matched by Kenyan Drake. Goff goes for 300 yards and 2 TDs; Kyler does the same. Aaron Donald notches a pair of sacks; so does Chandler Jones. Both teams trade knockout punches for all four quarters, but when the bell rings, it’s once again the Cardinals with one arm raised in victory. But there’s no time to celebrate, as they race back to the locker room to catch the end of the Niners/Seahawks game, which has gone to overtime…

Wild-Card Round – Home vs. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

As it turns out, the Niners upset the Seahawks, resulting in a three-way tie at 11-5 atop the division. After all the tiebreakers, it was the Arizona Cardinals—just two years removed from a 3-13 season—who emerged as the division champion and #3 seed, bringing postseason football back to the desert for the first time since 2015. They face yet *another* 11-5 team in the Bruce Arians/Tom Brady–led Bucs. Brady has been solid not spectacular in Tampa (Tompa?) but he’s been good enough to lead the team to the playoffs (with the help of a much-improved defense). But solid not spectacular isn’t good enough, as Brady can’t keep pace with Kyler. The Redbirds beat their former coach—in front of a huge (but not capacity yet) crowd at State Farm Stadium—and advance to the divisional round of the playoff.

Divisional Round – Away vs. New Orleans Saints

The Cardinals reward is a trip to the Big Easy to face the #2 seed Saints. Does the magical ride continue for Kliff, Kyler, and the boys? Spoilers: It does not. The Saints roster is just too talented and deep, and the Superdome is just too formidable, even not at full capacity. The Redbirds hang in there for three quarters, but Drew Brees puts them away in the 4th with a couple surgical strikes to Michael Thomas. Even though it ends in a loss, the season was already an incredible success, so the team leaves the field with its head held high.

Offseason

The hardware comes rolling in for this upstart 11-5 squad: Kingsbury wins Coach of the Year and Simmons wins DROY. Kyler, Hopkins, Drake, Jones, Hicks, Peterson, Baker, and Gonzalez all make the Pro Bowl. Kyler finishes second to Patrick Mahomes (who leads the Chiefs to a second-straight Super Bowl victory) in both MVP and OPOY, and Jones finishes in the top-5 of DPOY voting yet again. The team is talked about as a potential Super Bowl contender in 2021—and Larry Fitzgerald takes a steep pay cut to come back for another shot at that elusive ring. Not returning is Vance Joseph, with GM Steve Keim vowing to find the right guy to finally return this defense to a top-10 unit.

Final Thoughts

Okay, okay—this is mostly fantasy. Do I really think we can win the division and a playoff game this year—not to mention all that hardware? No, not really. But the NFL is the most unpredictable league out there, and I wanted to explore the absolute upper limit of the Cardinals range of outcomes this season. And if there was ever a season when the truly fluky could happen, it would be this season.

So what do you think, Cardinals fans? What’s your everything breaks right, best-case scenario for the Redbirds this season? Share it with us in the comments.