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Ending the drought: 2021 Arizona Cardinals best-case scenario

It’s season prediction time! Let’s start with the best-case scenario. How high can the Cardinals fly this season?

NFL: Dallas Cowboys at Arizona Cardinals
It’s a make-or-break year for Kliff Kingsbury. Can he lead this team back to the postseason this year?
Billy Hardiman-USA TODAY Sports

The start of the 2021 Arizona Cardinals season is just over a week away. That means it’s prediction time! As usual, my predictions will be three-fold: we’ll start today with the best-case scenario, then *shudders* the worst-case scenario, before ending with my actual predictions.

This year, it’s all about ending the drought here in the desert. No, not rain—it’s been a pretty active monsoon season here in the Valley. I’m talking about the playoff drought: this team hasn’t been to the postseason since B.A. and Carson Palmer led us to the NFC Championship Game after the 2015 season.

It’s been 5 seasons of playoff-less football since then, including last year’s disappointing 8-8 finish after that promising 6-3 start. Spoiler alert: In this best-case scenario, that drought ends this season.

Let’s see how we get there. As always, the scores and storylines are just for fun.

Week 1 – Away vs. Tennessee Titans

The Redbirds enter Week 1 as underdogs on the road against the reigning AFC South champs, but they’re not intimidated. Kyler comes out slinging, tossing a TD to DeAndre Hopkins on the opening drive on his way to a 300-yard day. Chase Edmonds and James Conner both look solid running behind what looks like a top-10 O-line. The Titans give as good as they get, though, with Ryan Tannehill, A.J. Brown, and Julio Jones putting up big numbers against a depleted Cardinals CB corps missing the retired Malcolm Butler. But young LBs Isaiah Simmons and Zaven Collins help bottle Derrick Henry up and some newcomer named J.J. Watt notches a couple of sacks. The Redbirds emerge with a surprising victory after a late Matt Prater FG to silence the Nashville crowd. Cardinals win, 31-28. Record: 1-0.

Week 2 – Home vs. Minnesota Vikings

The Cardinals return home in Week 2 to take on a team that also has designs on a return to the postseason. The Vikings are a very similar team to the Titans: elite RB, solid-but-not-spectacular QB, strong WR duo, mediocre defense. As such, this game goes much the same as the previous one. Kyler has a big game, so does Cousins, and the receivers all make their fantasy owners happy. But for a second straight week, the Redbirds defense keeps an elite RB in check and does just enough to help the team earn a victory, this time in front of the home crowd. Cardinals win, 33-27. Record: 2-0.

Week 3 – Away vs. Jacksonville Jaguars

These 10:00 a.m. East Coast games are never fun, but fortunately the Cardinals opponent for this one is a team in the midst of a rebuild. This Jaguars team led by new HC Urban Meyer and #1 overall pick QB Trevor Lawrence would be the obvious favorite in the CFP, but this is the NFL and the Cardinals are no Texas Tech (even given the obvious connections). Lawrence acquits himself well, but the rest of the Jags roster are, well, a bunch of JAGs and the Redbirds have a relatively easy time improving to 3-0. Kyler is playing at an All-Pro level, A.J. Green catches his first TD as a Cardinal, and the running game and defense control things for the road team. CB is still a sore spot, but three wins banked is three wins banked. Cardinals win, 30-17. Record: 3-0.

Week 4 – Away vs. Los Angeles Rams

We all know the recent history of this matchup: four straight season sweeps at the hands of the Sean McVay-led Rams. Seven of the eight losses were by double digits, including the embarrassing Week 17 loss to something called a “John Wolford” to eliminate us from the playoffs last season. Can the Redbirds end this ignominious streak this season? It’ll be much tougher with Matthew Stafford taking over for Jared Goff (not to mention Walford), putting the Rams very much in the Super Bowl conversation. I hate to say it, but the streak goes from 8 to 9 games after this Week 4 road matchup. Kyler and Co. at least keep it within single digits, but a late Stafford to Cooper Kupp TD gives the Cardinals their fist loss of the season. A rematch on Monday Night Football looms in Week 14. Cardinals lose, 26-20. Record: 3-1.

Week 5 – Home vs. San Francisco 49ers

After two weeks on the road, the Cardinals return to State Farm Stadium to take on another division rival. The Niners have made the switch from Jimmy Garoppolo to Trey Lance after two straight losses have dropped them to 2-2. The rookie looks good, too, darting into the end zone for his first career TD on the opening drive. Like most Niners/Cardinals games of late, this one is close, back-and-forth affair, with Matt Prater getting plenty of work as the Redbirds offense repeatedly stalls in 49er territory. His fifth FG gives us a narrow lead late in the 4th quarter, giving Lance the first two-minute drill of his career. But it ends quickly, with Marco Wilson snagging his first career INT to give the team the W against their division rival. Cardinals win, 29-27. Record: 4-1.

Week 6 – Away vs. Cleveland Browns

A tough opening stretch for the Redbirds continues as they travel to the East Coast for the third time in six games. This time, their opponent is Baker Mayfield and the fellow 4-1 Browns, their only defeat a season-opening loss to the Chiefs. The Cardinals front seven, led by a resurgent J.J. Watt and the young LB duo of Isaiah Simmons and Zaven Collins, has held several talented running backs in check so far this young season… but not today. Nick Chubb, running behind the NFL’s top O-line, runs rampant on his home field. Kyler and Co. just don’t have the ball enough to keep up as the Redbirds drop their second game of the season. Cardinals lose, 33-21. Record: 4-2.

Week 7 – Home vs. Houston Texans

After losing two out of three, some home cooking against an easy opponent is just what the doctor ordered. The hapless Houston Texans come to town with a winless record and looking very much like the doormat of the league—they’re in the bottom five of the league in most major categories on both sides of the ball. DeAndre Hopkins has had this game circled on his calendar ever since last season’s surprise trade, and he has his best game of the season, going for over 150 yards and 2 TDs. The offense rolls, the defense swarms, and the Cardinals win in a laugher with the starters getting some rest in the 4th quarter with a short week ahead. Cardinals win, 34-13. Record: 5-2.

Week 8 – Home vs. Green Bay Packers

This Thursday Night Football showdown comes with a lot of hype—both the Cardinals and Packers are in the thick of a just-forming NFC playoff race. The Pack lead the North, while the Cardinals are just a half-game behind the Rams in the West. Both teams come ready to play and give the national TV audience a show—Kyler and Aaron Rodgers are both in MVP form and trade TDs all night. But the Redbirds just don’t have any answer for Davante Adams in this one, who reels in three TDs from Rodgers. Not even Malcolm Butler would have helped in this one. The Cardinals, down just one late in the 4th, have a chance to get into FG range, but a common bugaboo pops up: penalties. They get pushed out of FG range and can’t convert a 4th-and-long, dropping a tough one against a legitimate Super Bowl contender. Cardinals lose, 28-27. Record: 5-3.

Week 9 – Away vs. San Francisco 49ers

The hidden benefit of a Thursday night game is that you get 10 days to prepare for the next game, a nice little mini bye week. The Cardinals need it, too, with a road trip to the Bay and a rematch with the Niners on tap. The Trey Lance era is off to a somewhat rocky start—the 49ers are 1-2 in his three starts—but it’s not all the rookie’s fault, as the injury and inconsistency bugs that have plagued this team at times in recent years are still biting. Still, a road divisional game is always a tough draw, and, predictably, this is a tight contest from the opening kickoff. Matt Prater and Robbie Gould both hit several long kicks, but it’s Prater’s late in the 4th that prove to be the winning points. It’s the veteran’s third game-winner already this season, giving the Redbirds some much-needed stability at the kicker position. Cardinals win, 26-23. Record: 6-3.

Week 10 – Home vs. Carolina Panthers

Sandwiched between road trips to San Francisco and Seattle is a home date with the Carolina Panthers. The Panthers have actually had the Cardinals’ number in recent years, winning the last five matchups, including playoff losses in back-to-back seasons: the immortal Ryan Lindley game and the NFC title game beatdown. So this game has “trap” game written all over it. Fortunately, Ryan Lindley is nowhere to be seen and the Panthers’ starter is Sam Darnold, whose struggles in the NFL have followed him from New York (well, Jersey). The Redbirds easily handle the jungle cats behind their running game, with both Edmonds and Conner scoring TDs. Darnold does toss a long TD in garbage time to D.J. Moore, but the game was already in hand largely due to his three INTs. The Cardinals improve to 4-1 at home. Cardinals win, 30-19. Record: 7-3.

Week 11 – Away vs. Seattle Seahawks

Just one thing stands in the way of a most-welcome bye week: the annual road trip to Seattle. Believe it or not, the Cardinals are actually a half-game ahead of the Seahawks for second in the division, just behind the Rams. So the stakes are quite high—so much so that the game is flexed into Sunday night. The Cardinals and Seahawks have a lot of history on Sunday night. Unfortunately for the Cardinals, this game proves to be one to forget. Kyler doesn’t have his fastball, the running game can’t get going, the pass rush is ineffective with a banged-up J.J. Watt, and the CBs are exposed by Russell Wilson. This year’s team isn’t quite ready for prime time yet, falling to 0-2 in night games. Cardinals lose, 31-20. Record: 7-4.

Week 12 – Bye Week

Week 13 – Away vs. Chicago Bears

After licking their wounds over the bye week, the Redbirds travel to frigid Chicago. They face their third rookie QB of the season in Justin Fields. (The Andy Dalton era was short-lived.) The Bears are a few games under .500, only theoretically still in the playoff picture. But Fields looks legit and the Bears are no pushovers. In fact, they race out to a 10-0 lead after one quarter. But the Cardinals keep their composure and the game goes into halftime all tied up. Kyler takes over in the 3rd, connecting with Hopkins in the back corner of the end zone, then hitting Rondale Moore on a slant that he takes to the house. There’s no looking back after that, and they salt the game away in the 4th with Edmonds and Conner. The Redbirds return home victorious with a massive rematch against the Rams up next. Cardinals win, 31-21. Record: 8-4.

Week 14 – Home vs. Los Angeles Rams

Nine games. The Cardinals have lost nine games in a row to the Sean McVay Rams. None of that matters going into this Monday Night Football game. The Cardinals are just a game behind the Rams in the NFC West—meaning they will have a share of the division lead if they can manage to end that pesky losing streak. If there was ever a time to do it, it’s now, with Kyler in the MVP conversation, Hopkins having another All-Pro season, Watt and Chandler Jones leading one of the better pass rushes in the league, and the mostly untested CBs playing as well as could be expected. In an instant classic with tons of big plays and clutch moments, the Redbirds pull it out with Kyler scoring on a keeper late in the 4th to cap a comeback win. The streak is over, and the Cardinals are in first place in the NFC West with just four games to go. Cardinals win, 28-24. Record: 9-4.

Week 15 – Away vs. Detroit Lions

It seems like we play the Lions every year, doesn’t it? Well, we’ve played them in each of the past four seasons, and eight out of the last nine. However, we’re just 0-3-1 in those four most recent matchups, and they have a familiar nemesis under center in former Ram Jared Goff. But these aren’t… well, these actually probably *are* your daddy’s Lions. The perennially moribund franchise is as moribund as ever, well under .500 and way out of the playoff picture. Kyler puts up Offensive Player of the Week numbers and the defense has a field day. The Redbirds roll in this one as they inch closer to clinching that elusive playoff berth. Cardinals win, 35-16. Record: 10-4.

Week 16 – Home vs. Indianapolis Colts

Just three games left and, amazingly, the Cardinals control their own destiny in the NFC West. Win out, and they’ll be division champions—and they could even snag the coveted bye with some help. But they don’t want to get ahead of themselves, as a talented Colts team with plenty to play for themselves comes to town. After a rough start to Carson Wentz era, the Colts have played much better of late, getting back to .500 and within shouting distance of the AFC North lead. They play like men on a mission, with Jonathan Taylor piling up yards behind and elite O-line and Darius Leonard flying around the field making plays. This is a close game in the 4th, with the Colts up. The Redbirds are driving for the winning TD, but Leonard makes a spectacular play to stop Kyler on a 4th-down run as the Cardinals drop a heartbreaker. They no longer control their own destiny in the NFC North… or for a playoff berth. Cardinals lose, 30-24. Record: 10-5.

Week 17 – Away vs. Dallas Cowboys

It’s come down to this. Week 17, the final game of the season… oh wait. There’s now a Week 18 due to this stupid 17-game schedule. Anyway, the Cardinals have a tough road trip to Dallas ahead of them as the fight for their playoff lives. The Cowboys have Dak Prescott back under center, and although the offense hasn’t played like it did when he was healthy last season, they’re nevertheless in the thick of the NFC playoff hunt (and NFC North division race). With two elite QBs leading top-10 offenses, this one unsurprisingly turns into a shootout. Kyler and Dak trade TDs, Edmonds and Conner keep pace with Zeke, and neither defense seems to be able to do much. This one comes down to the wire, with Greg the Leg drilling a 50-yarder with just under a minute left. Matt Prater doesn’t get a chance to match as the Cardinals just run out of time. Is time running out on their season as well? This is looking like a repeat of last season. Cardinals lose, 34-31. Record: 10-6.

Week 18 – Home vs. Seattle Seahawks

It comes down to this. Week 18, the final game of the season (apparently). Just like last season, this is an elimination game for the Cardinals. Win and they’re in the postseason for the first time in six seasons. Lose, and it’s another bitter offseason—likely with sweeping organizational changes. Their opponent, the Seahawks, also have plenty to play for, as they can win the NFC North title with a victory. (They have already clinched at least a playoff spot.) This one is typical Cardinals/Seahawks nail-biter with big plays, ill-timed penalties, and bizarre turnovers from both teams. The Redbirds are in front for most of the contest, but Russell Wilson finds DK Metcalf for a TD late in the 4th to tie the game. Kyler has under two minutes to get the team into FG range. He does just that, finding Andy Isabella of all people with a pinpoint pass on a deep route. Kliff Kingsbury elects to milk the clock a bit—also shades of last season—before sending Prater out. He drills the kick as the clock hits zeroes, sending the Cardinals back to the playoffs. Cardinals win, 27-24. Record: 11-6.

Wild Card Round – Away vs. Washington Football Team

When the dust had settled, the Cardinals wound up with the top Wild Card berth in the NFC, meaning a road trip to the lowest-seeded division winner. The Washington Football Team barely won the NFC East over the Cowboys. Their offense is led by FitzMagic and a cadre of talented youngsters (including former Cardinal QB great Logan Thomas), and they field a top-5 defense. But the Cardinals come in with a top-5 offense, and a defense that has managed to hold together even with problems at the CB position. Elite QBs have given the Cardinals fits all season, but, fortunately, Ryan Fitzpatrick isn’t quite on that level. In a game that’s lower scoring than expected, the Redbirds manage to outlast Washington on the road, playing turnover-free football and keeping the penalties and mistakes to a minimum. They advance to the divisional round. Cardinals win, 23-17.

Divisional Round – Away vs. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

As the lowest-seeded team remaining, the Redbirds must travel to face the NFC’s top seed: the defending Super Bowl champion Buccaneers… and an old friend in Bruce Arians. Arians is all smiles and jokes in the media, but when the teams take the field, it’s anything but friendly. The Cardinals are a solid team—they’ve made it this far for a reason—but their roster just isn’t complete enough to keep up with one of the best teams in the league, and they’re badly outmatched from a coaching perspective. This isn’t exactly a rout, but it’s not close either as the Bucs advance to a second-straight NFC Championship game, where they lose to the eventual Super Bowl champion Packers. The Cardinals shouldn’t sulk for too long, though—this was still a successful season. Cardinals lose, 34-22.

Offseason

The Cardinals are well represented at the Pro Bowl, with Kyler, Hopkins, and Budda Baker all returning, joined by J.J. Watt, Rodney Hudson, and first-timer D.J. Humphries. Kyler gets a couple votes for MVP, as does Zaven Collins for DROY and Kingsbury for Coach of the Year. (Robert Alford does, uh, not win Comeback Player of the Year.) The coaching staff is given extensions as the team finally seems to have some stability and is trending in the right direction. Can GM Steve Keim make the right moves to put this team over the top in 2022? And what does he say when he gets a call from none other than Larry Fitzgerald the day after the Super Bowl?

Final Thoughts

I truly don’t know the ceiling of this team—especially with the Malcolm Butler news and a few awkward clouds hanging over the locker room—but if I squint hard enough, I can see this team making the playoffs and perhaps winning a game. There’s plenty of talent on this team, even if this isn’t the deepest or most complete roster around. It mostly depends on Kyler. If he makes another leap in Year 3, this team could make some noise regardless of the roster around him.

What do we think RotBers? Is anyone dreaming higher than this? Or does even this scenario seem unobtainable? Give us your best-case scenarios in the comments. I’ll be back next week with the rest of my predictions.