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Mirror image: 2020 Arizona Cardinals worst-case scenario

2020 has been a grim year already. A bad Cardinals season would make it even worse. Let’s explore the worst-case scenario for the Cardinals today.

NFL: Arizona Cardinals Red & White Practice
This picture of Kliff Kingsbury would have made no sense a year ago. That’s 2020 for you.
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

I wasn’t sure we’d get here, but here we are. The NFL is back tonight! Each team begins the season with its own set of hopes and expectations. Previously, we explored what a best-case scenario season might look like for the Cardinals. Today, we do the opposite. What would a worst-case scenario look like for Kyler Murray, DeAndre Hopkins, and the rest of the new-look Cardinals? Let’s give into the doom and gloom of 2020 and find out. (As always, scores and storylines are for recreational purposes only.)

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—for the first three quarters at least. There are no fans in attendance at Levi’s Stadium, which 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 tied 20-20 heading into the 4th quarter, but then an old Achilles’ heel rears it’s ugly head as George Kittle goes over the century mark and adds an emphatic TD over rookie Isaiah Simmons. Welcome to the NFL, rookie—and welcome to 2020, Cardinals. Cardinals lose, 30-20. Record: 0-1.

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 improved from last year, but they’re still further behind in their rebuild than the Cardinals. The home team races out to a 10-0 1st-quarter lead behind a second Kyler-to-Hopkins TD in as many weeks, and the defense plays well with Chandler Jones sacking Haskins twice and Simmons makes up for last week by adding one himself. Washington does cut it to one when Scary Terry McLaurin gets loose late for a long TD, but the Redbirds are able to grind the clock out with Drake to even their record. Cardinals win, 24-16. Record: 1-1.

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, burning Patrick Peterson and Byron Murphy Jr. on TDs to Kenny Golladay and Marvin Jones Jr. Unlike last season, however, the Redbirds offense is clicking early as well, with Larry Fitzgerald and Kenyan Drake adding TDs of their own. 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, Stafford gets the Lions get into FG range 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 former Cardinal Adrian Peterson around midfield… only for the veteran to quickly fall on the ball. This one ends the exact same way it did last year. Cardinals tie, 27-27. Record: 1-1-1.

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. Christian McCaffrey has the offense humming along, but the young defense is struggling as the team has limped to a 1-2 start. Kyler and the offense have little trouble moving the ball, but familiar struggles in the red zone lead to more FGs than they’d like. Meanwhile, Bridgewater and CMC keep the Panthers close as the Redbirds defense just can’t seem to get 3rd-down stops. A late Zane Gonzalez FG gives the Cardinals a 3-point lead, but Bridgewater connects with D.J. Moore a couple times to get the Panthers into FG range themselves. Fortunately, Joey Slye is wide and the Redbirds escape with a narrow win. Cardinals win, 23-20. Record: 2-1-1.

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 undefeated Dallas Cowboys. The Cardinals are looking improved at 2-1-1 and there are rumblings the Cowboys game could be a playoff preview. 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), which the Jets turn into a short Le’Veon Bell TD, and Gonzalez misses a chip shot as the Cardinals go scoreless in the 1st quarter. The game is marred by sloppy play and penalties on both sides, but Kyler leads the Redbirds back and it’s close in the 4th quarter. But Chris Herndon beats Jordan Hicks for a TD to give the Jets the lead. A comeback attempt is thwarted when Kyler is picked off near midfield. The Redbirds fall back to .500. Cardinals lose, 20-26. Record: 2-2-1.

Week 6 – Away vs. Dallas Cowboys

What could have been a huge primetime matchup between division leaders is instead an undefeated Cowboys squad against a middling Cardinals team. While Dak Prescott is playing at an MVP level and Ezekiel Elliott and Amari Cooper are among the league leaders in rushing/receiving yards, their Cardinals counterparts are having merely productive—not elite—seasons. But the Cardinals come ready to play, and Kyler and Hopkins hook up for a TD on the 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. But as has happened all season, the Redbirds falter in the 4th quarter, with the offense not quite able to keep up and the defense failing to get stops. Zeke’s third TD of the night puts the game out of reach and the Cardinals head home under .500 once again. Cardinals lose, 33-21. Record: 2-3-1.

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 coming against the Cowboys) and Russell Wilson is playing at his usual Pro Bowl level. Understandably, the Cardinals come out somewhat flat in this one—overthrown passes, drops, fumbles, defensive miscues. It’s just not the Cardinals’ day this time. Still, they usually play the Seahawks tough, and this isn’t a blowout. But Russell Wilson does enough Russell Wilson things and the Seahawks leave State Farm Stadium with a hard-earned win. It’s becoming clear that this team isn’t improved enough to keep up in a tough NFC West. The Cardinals enter their bye week with the offense still not quite clicking and the defense struggling. Cardinals lose, 23-17. Record: 2-4-1.

Week 9 – Home vs. Miami Dolphins

The Cardinals are reeling after losing three straight, but the schedule eases up with a rebuilding Dolphins team coming to down. They’re 3-5 with a nonexistent running game and a bad defense, but rookie Tua Tagovailoa has looked sharp after taking the reins from Ryan Fitzpatrick despite no preseason snaps. He and DeVante Parker give the Dolphins defense all they can handle, but Kyler and Co. are game for a shootout. Kyler throws for a two TDs and rushes for two more as he finally has the game the Cardinals (and his fantasy owners) were waiting for. The defense gives up a few big plays but makes a few of its own—including a pick-six from Isaiah Simmons (who is otherwise still searching for a position). The Dolphins make it closer than you’d like, but the Redbirds pick up a much-needed win as they enter the toughest part of their schedule. Cardinals win, 28-24. Record: 3-4-1.

Week 10 – Home vs. Buffalo Bills

Another AFC East opponent comes knocking in Week 10, with the first-place Bills coming to town. They’re 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. And the Redbirds rushing defense has been struggling, which has the Bills’ duo of Devin Singletary and Zach Moss licking their chops (not to mention Allen’s rushing prowess). With the Cardinals possessing a capable rushing attack of their own, this one becomes a bit of a slugfest. But eventually, the Bills’ attack proves too much to overcome, with Allen bulldozing into the end zone to once again put a game out of reach in the 4th quarter. The Cardinals have now lost four of five and are falling farther and farther behind in the NFC playoff standings. Cardinals lose, 26-17. Record: 3-5-1.

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. It’s desperation time for the Redbirds—at 3-5-1, a win would get them back on the fringes of the playoff chase, while a loss would all but eliminate them. 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. Unfortunately, it’s clear from the jump that the tough game against the Bills and the short week are going to be too much to overcome. The offense goes three and out, then Russell Wilson leads a long scoring drive that ends in a Greg Olsen TD. The rest of the game is much the same—sloppy play from the Cardinals and Wilson making it look easy. Year 2 of the Kliff and Kyler show is not at all going as planned as their record is identical to what it was at the same point last year. Cardinals lose, 27-13. Record: 3-6-1.

Week 12 – Away vs. New England Patriots

No rest for the weary. After the tough loss 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 Cam Newton has revived his career and Bill Belichick has once again put together a top-10 defense. And 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 continues a long string of disappointing games, and the RBs can’t find room to run. On the other side, Newton has a vintage game, throwing for two scores and running for another. All in all, this is a game to forget for the Cardinals, who are now an afterthought in the NFC. Cardinals lose, 28-14. Record: 3-7-1.

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, but they are still ahead of the Cardinals in the NFC West. The defense is far from elite, but Aaron Donald hasn’t gone anywhere, and the offense is still plenty capable with Jared Goff throwing to weapons like Cooper Kupp, Robert Woods, and Tyler Higbee. Unsurprisingly, this one turns into a shootout much like the 2018 version of the Rams. Kyler and Goff both have big days—300+ yards and 3 TDs apiece—as both teams pull out all the stops with gadget plays, fake kicks, and big plays galore. When the dust settles, the Cardinals prevail in a game that makes fantasy football fans around the country happy but has little impact on the standings. Cardinals win, 33-30. Record: 4-7-1.

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. Neither team is in the playoff picture again, but the Giants are no pushovers with Saquon Barkley having another Pro Bowl–caliber year and Daniel Jones showing improvement throwing to a sneaky-good set of weapons. This will be a tough road test on a frigid December afternoon. But the Cardinals—playing for pride—are up to the task. 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.) The defense plays a bit better, with former Giant Devon Kennard recording a sack against his former team. This comes down to the 4th quarter, but Kyler confidently leads the two-minute drill and Gonzalez nails a tricky FG to send the Redbirds home with a second-straight win, equaling last year’s victory total with three left to play. Cardinals win, 24-23. Record: 5-7-1.

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 in second place in the NFC East and on track for a Wild Card berth. They’ve faced a tough schedule but are relatively injury free, with Carson Wentz having a Pro Bowl–type season. But Kyler has the offense playing well and the team now has the faintest glimmer of playoff hopes. This one—wait for it—turns into another shootout. DeAndre Hopkins takes over for the Redbirds, having the kind of monster day he used to make look routine in Houston with over 150 yards and 2 TDs. But—here it comes—the defense just can’t hang, and Zach Ertz makes an impressive TD grab over *both* Jordan Hicks and Isaiah Simmons to put the game out of reach in the 4th quarter. Any hope of the playoffs—much less a .500 season—are now gone. Cardinals lose, 34-27. Record: 5-8-1.

Week 16 – Home vs. San Francisco 49ers

Although the Redbirds are out of the playoff hunt, this game does have playoff implications for the 49ers—they’re tied atop the division with the Seahawks. They look primed to make another Super Bowl run with Deebo Samuel recovered from injury and fully breaking out, Raheem Mostert and Tevin Coleman forming another top-10 rushing offense, and DPOY contender Nick Bosa leading another dominant defense. The Niners need this one and they play like it, with 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. The final numbers make fantasy players happy, but he hasn’t quite made The Leap many were expecting in Year 2. The Niners take this one easily, and the Redbirds go into Week 17 needing a win to beat last seasons total. Cardinals lose, 37-23. Record: 5-9-1.

Week 17 – Away vs. Los Angeles Rams

The Cardinals travel west to face the Rams to determine who finishes in the basement of the NFC West. Both teams play their starters the whole game to try to end the season with a win. This game plays out exactly like the first one, another day at the racetrack. 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 the killing blow comes when Tyler Higbee improbably snags a ball in the end zone over Jordan Hicks, Isaiah Simmons, *and* Budda Baker for the winning points. The season started with such promise, but the Cardinals end the season with exactly the same record as last year. Cardinals lose, 38-31. Record: 5-10-1.

Offseason

Not only do the Cardinals finish with the same record, but their points for and against are the exact same as last year as well. There’s no progress at all for Cardinals fans to hang their hats on. And there’s no hardware for the team either. Kyler is again a Pro Bowl alternate but doesn’t make the roster, Simmons finishes behind Chase Young for DROY, and Jones doesn’t get any votes for DPOY. And to top it all off, the 49ers win the Super Bowl over the Steelers.

The team enters the offseason without a clear direction. Big-name colleges come sniffing around Kliff Kingsbury, but he insists he’s the Cardinals coach—for now. GM Steve Keim elects to retain Vance Joseph. “I feel good about the direction of our defense,” he says. The gang will mostly return in 2021—except for Larry Fitzgerald, who elects to hang it up.

Final Thoughts

This really would be a pretty brutal season, wouldn’t it? But I think last year’s win total is the absolute floor for this team. We’re obviously improved, but the schedule is fairly tough and who knows how this strange season will play out.

This year is already plenty bad, but feel free to share your nightmare season with us in the comments. What’s the absolute last thing you want to see out of this season? (Other than illness or injury; that’s obvious.)

I’ll be back (hopefully) tomorrow with my actual season predictions.