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Same old Cardinals: 2021 Arizona Cardinals worst-case scenario

If you’re in the prediction-making business, you have to consider the worst-case scenario. Today, we do just that.

Arizona Cardinals Training Camp
Some would say that the 2021 Arizona Cardinals season all hinges on GM Steve Keim.
Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images

With the start of the Cardinals season nearly upon us, let’s keep the predictions going. Last week, we explored the best-case scenario for the team. Today, it’s time for the flipside: the worst-case scenario. It’s never a fun exercise, but it’s always best to prepare for the worst, right? Let’s take a walk on the dark side.

Week 1 – Away vs. Tennessee Titans

The Cardinals travel to Nashville as underdogs against the defending AFC South champs. Byron Murphy immediately gives up a TD to new Titan Julio Jones on the opening drive and the home team doesn’t look back. Kyler and the offense look okay, but they barely get the ball in the second half as Derrick Henry steamrolls the defense. The CBs are exposed and the pass rush flounders even with J.J. Watt in the fold. Not the strong start Kliff Kingsbury and Co. were hoping for with a tough opening schedule. Cardinals lose, 31-20. Record: 0-1.

Week 2 – Home vs. Minnesota Vikings

Maybe some home cooking is what the Cardinals need to get on track. The Vikings are also trying to return to the postseason and they boast a similar roster to the Titans: elite RB, solid-but-not-spectacular QB, strong WR duo, mediocre defense. The Redbirds D plays better against Dalvin Cook than it did against Henry last week, but Kirk Cousins, Justin Jefferson, and Adam Thielen shred their CBs. Kyler is able to drive the offense in FG range to tie the game late in the 4th, but new kicker Matt Prater misses a 45-yarder as the Redbirds drop a second straight game to start the season. Cardinals lose, 26-23. Record: 0-2.

Week 3 – Away vs. Jacksonville Jaguars

A 10:00 a.m. East Coast game is not what the Cardinals need right now, but fortunately their opponent is the rebuilding Jaguars. Urban Meyer has yet to win his first game as an NFL head coach, although #1 overall pick Trevor Lawrence has looked the part of a franchise QB. This is a closer game than Cardinals fans would like, but Kyler, Hopkins, and the offense are too much for the Jaguars and the defense does just enough as the Redbirds notch their first win. Cardinals win, 24-20. Record: 1-2.

Week 4 – Away vs. Los Angeles Rams

The recent history of this matchup isn’t pretty for the Cardinals: four straight season sweeps at the hands of the Sean McVay-led Rams, with seven of eight losses by double digits. Not to mention that the eliminated us from the playoffs last year with something called a “John Wolford” at QB. Can the Cardinals end the streak of futility this season? It’s pretty clear from the get-go that the streak won’t be ending today. The CBs have no answer for Matthew Stafford, Robert Woods, and Cooper Kupp, and the offense just can’t get it going against Aaron Donald, Jalen Ramsey, and the Rams D. Another double-digit loss. The Cardinals will have one more chance to end the streak in Week 14 on Monday Night Football at home. Cardinals lose, 30-16. Record: 1-3.

Week 5 – Home vs. San Francisco 49ers

The Cardinals return home in Week 5 with another division foe on tap. The Niners are still rolling with Jimmy Garoppolo… at least until he gets hurt in the 2nd quarter. On comes rookie Trey Lance, who struggles in his first NFL appearance, getting sacked by Chandler Jones then throwing a pick to Zaven Collins on his first drive. He later scores on a rushing TD to tie the game at 21, but Kyler finds Hopkins in the end zone late in the 4th to take the lead. Lance and the Niners go 4-and-out to give the Redbirds their first divisional win of the season. (Spoiler alert: it’ll be their only divisional win of the season.) Cardinals win, 28-21. Record: 2-3.

Week 6 – Away vs. Cleveland Browns

The schedule makers did the Cardinals no favors this season—this is already their third trip to the East Coast through the first six weeks. This week, they face Baker Mayfield and the 4-1 Cleveland Browns, who look very much like a contender. That continues in this game, as Mayfield and Nick Chubb find little resistance in the Cardinals defense, and Kyler and the Cardinals offense struggle in the chilly Cleveland weather. A 2-4 start is clearly not what GM Steve Keim had in mind after bringing in several veterans in the offseason. His seat and that of Kingsbury are definitely heating up. Cardinals lose, 33-17. Record: 2-4.

Week 7 – Home vs. Houston Texans

The Cardinals desperately need a break after a rough start to the season, and although they don’t get their bye week yet, they do get a home game against the hapless Houston Texans. DeAndre Hopkins’s old squad has a winless record and are in the bottom five of the league in most major categories on both sides of the ball. D-Hop, who has had this game circled on his calendar since he was traded here, goes off for 150 yards and 2 TDs as the Cardinals roll. Cardinals win, 30-17. Record: 3-4.

Week 8 – Home vs. Green Bay Packers

The first primetime game of the season comes against Aaron Rodgers and the NFC North-leading Packers. Although the Pack had a tumultuous offseason, they still look like a Super Bowl contender with Rodgers at the helm of a dangerous offense and a solid-enough defense. The Redbirds keep it close for three quarters, but they just don’t have an answer for Davante Adams in the 4th quarter. He reels in two TDs from Rodgers to put the game out of reach. The Cardinals find themselves languishing in last place in the NFC West as the season nears its midpoint. Cardinals lose, 34-22. Record: 3-5.

Week 9 – Away vs. San Francisco 49ers

Coming off a Thursday night game, the Cardinals get some extra time to prepare for their next game. And they need it, with Trey Lance really hitting his stride, as the Niners have won the previous two games after dropping his debut to the Redbirds. Lance makes plays with both his arm and his feet in this one. Kyler and the offense are able to keep pace, but Lance finds former Sun Devil Brandon Aiyuk late in the 4th to give the Niners the lead. Kyler is sacked by Nick Bosa on back-to-back plays on the subsequent drive to end the game. This is looking like a lost season for the Cardinals. There are rumblings of a potential coaching change after the upcoming bye week. Cardinals lose, 27-21. Record: 3-6.

Week 10 – Home vs. Carolina Panthers

Up next is a home game against the Carolina Panthers, who have had the Cardinals’ number in recent years. They have won the last five matchups, including two in the playoffs. Neither team appears headed toward the postseason this year, as they’re both last in their division. But even in a down year, the Cardinals aren’t going to lose at home to Sam Darnold… right? This one is closer than expected, as the Cardinals just can’t get stops—whether it’s CMC making plays or the Redbirds committing stupid penalties. But eventually they are able to hold on for a home win, cooling the hot seat talk for now. Cardinals win, 27-23. Record: 4-6.

Week 11 – Away vs. Seattle Seahawks

If the Cardinals can get to just one game below .500 before their bye week, they have a chance to sneak back into the playoff picture, especially with a few winnable games coming up. Unfortunately, this week is the annual trip to Seattle. We’ve had plenty of success up there in recent years, but this just isn’t our year. Kyler hasn’t made the leap many expected, and the offense is more top-15 than top-10. The cornerback situation is a mess and the pass rush success from last season hasn’t carried over, so the defense as a whole has badly regressed. The Redbirds give a game effort in this one, but the Seahawks are just better in every facet and win this one at home. Whispers of a coaching change grow louder. Cardinals lose, 30-20. Record: 4-7.

Week 12 – Bye Week

Week 13 – Away vs. Chicago Bears

Despite media speculation, the Cardinals don’t elect to make any coaching—or GM—changes over the bye week and head to Chicago just wanting to claw back to respectability. They feel good about their chances down the stretch with some winnable road games and the tougher matchups coming at home. This week’s opponent is also several games out of the playoff race and are starting a rookie QB in Justin Fields. Fields has looked decent, and the Cardinals defense has made most opposing QBs look like Pro Bowlers. The Cardinals are actually up double-digits in the second half, but the defense wanes and Fields nearly leads the Bears back. But they come up short on a two-point conversation attempt with the clock winding down and the Redbirds hold on for a tough road win. Cardinals win, 26-24. Record: 5-7.

Week 14 – Home vs. Los Angeles Rams

A .500 record is in sight. With a winnable game against Detroit next week, all the Cardinals have to do is beat a team that’s beaten them nine times in a row. They do get the Rams at home, but the Cardinals haven’t actually beaten the Rams at home since 2014, before Sean McVay was even on the scene. No small task, but it’s now or never. End the streak, get closer to .500, save the season. But… this is the worst-case scenario. That’s not happening. Instead, it’s another butt-kicking at the hands of the Rams. The streak continues, and the season is all but over. Cardinals lose, 31-19. Record: 5-8.

Week 15 – Away vs. Detroit Lions

Another year, another matchup with the Lions, a team we’ve played in each of the last four seasons, and eight out of the last nine. The Cardinals have a chance to end another streak this season, though, as we’re 0-3-1 against the Lions in those four most recent matchups. And they are led by former Ram Jared Goff, so a win might ease the sting a little bit, right? Not really, but the Lions are one of the worst teams in the league and one the Cardinals should beat even in a down year. That’s just what they do in this game, with Kyler having his best game of the year and the defense playing well until garbage time. At 6-8, is the season still somewhat salvageable? Cardinals win, 31-21. Record: 6-8.

Week 16 – Home vs. Indianapolis Colts

The Colts come to town in the of the AFC playoff hunt, while the Cardinals are barely on the fringes in the NFC. Carson Wentz is having a resurgent season, and the Colts defense is a top-10 unit. The Colts come out swinging, but the Cardinals match their intensity—at least they haven’t given up on the season. This one is an entertaining affair for the State Farm Stadium faithful, but the Cardinals fall just short with Kyler just missing Hopkins in the end zone on the final drive. They will finish under .500 for the season and are officially eliminated from the playoffs. Cardinals lose, 30-24. Record: 6-9.

Week 17 – Away vs. Dallas Cowboys

At the beginning of the season, Cardinals fans were hoping this game would have playoff implications. It does… just for the Cowboys, who are in a dogfight with Washington for the NFC East crown. The Cardinals are just playing for pride and draft position at this point. As has been typical this season, the offense plays well but the defense doesn’t hold up its end of the bargain. Dak Prescott plays like an MVP candidate, carving up the secondary as the Cowboys win a shootout. Kliff Kingsbury’s days as Cardinals coach are clearly numbered. The only question is whether Steve Keim will follow him out the door. Cardinals lose, 35-27. Record: 6-10.

Week 18 – Home vs. Seattle Seahawks

Appropriately for a game in “Week 18,” this game is utterly meaningless for both teams with the Cardinals eliminated from the playoffs and the Seahawks locked into their playoff seed. Both teams pull their starters in the 2nd quarter, and this turns into a Colt McCoy vs. Geno Smith battle of the backups. The game is entertaining enough, but no one is watching. The Redbirds lose their third straight to finish last in the NFC West once again as all three other teams in the division make the playoffs. Cardinals lose, 28-23. Record: 6-11.

Offseason

Kliff Kingsbury is unsurprisingly fired the day after the season is over, and in something of a surprise—he’s held on this long—Steve Keim is let go later in the day. DeAndre Hopkins and Budda Baker are the only two Cardinals to make the Pro Bowl. Kyler was just an alternate. The Rams win the Super Bowl over the Bills as the Cardinals face not a rebuild but a retool. Again.

Final Thoughts

Let’s face it: We have a fairly tough schedule and this roster has holes. A season like this is certainly within the range of outcomes. So to me this team has about range of about 6-11 to 11-6 this season. Where do I actually think they land? Find out on Sunday.