The playoffs are finally here. For the first time since 2015 (technically January 2016), the Arizona Cardinals are playing postseason football as we travel to Los Angeles to take on the Rams on Monday Night Football.
This isn’t how we thought things would go down a couple months ago. Remember when the NFC West title seemed in the bag and we were competing for the #1 seed? But Cardinals fans will take playoff football when we can get it.
The matchup against the Rams is an interesting one for a few reasons. For one, we’re divisional foes who split 1-1 in the regular season. Rubber matches are always interesting, especially for two teams who know each other so well. This is also a matchup between once-MVP candidate QBs on would-be NFC contenders who faded down the stretch. These teams have a lot in common.
But there are a couple factors that are uniquely interesting from a Cardinals perspective. This is a road game on primetime. The Cardinals were an outstanding 8-1 on the road this season, but a dismal 0-3 in primetime contests (all at home). One of those things has to give on Monday.
My questions today are: Do these records mean anything? And if so, what? Is there some kind of psychological effect at play here? Let’s dig in and try to find out.
With the new 17-game schedule (Author note: I still hate it!), half the teams now have to play 9 road games versus 8 for the rest of the league. (This is without even taking into account neutral site games like the ones in London—basically road games for both teams.) This season, the Cardinals were one of the teams who had to play 9 road games.
Maybe they should have played the whole season out of a suitcase, as the Cardinals went 8-1 in those games (the only blemish was Week 15 in Detroit), as opposed to 3-5 at State Farm Stadium. Now, they’ll play their tenth road game of the season Monday in L.A. So: Should the Cardinals view being on the road as an advantage given their success away from home this season? And why have they played so much better on the road anyway?
Sorry to be anticlimactic, but I don’t have any real answers to these questions. In a vacuum, I don’t think playing on the road is ever an advantage, and the road/home record disparity could just be a fluke. But this isn’t a vacuum, and there might be something to the disparity.
The Cardinals came into the season with playoff expectations—and “expectations” is a word I’m going to focus on a lot from here on out. Maybe there are leadership issues with this team, maybe it’s inexperience with consistently winning at the pro level, maybe they’re simply pressing. Whatever it is, this team just doesn’t play well when the expectations are high. When the pressure is on.
And expectations are typically much higher for home games—and, again, we went 3-5 at home. Expectations are also higher when you’re the favorite—and the Cardinals were just 5-6 as favorites this season. And we already know about the 0-3 record in primetime—which, yep, expectations are always higher for those games, especially in front of the home crowd. This team just doesn’t seem to do well with pressure.
This might explain the second-half collapse. Expectations went through the roof when the team started 7-0 and then 10-2. Were those expectations too much? There are myriad other factors here, but finishing the season 1-4 (and going 1-6 in the last 7 games in which we were favored might) just be a sign of a team struggling under the weight of expectations. Under pressure, so to speak.
Again, I don’t know why this is—I’m not on that field or in that locker room, obviously—but those numbers are hard to ignore.
But let’s look at the converse situation. You may have heard that the Cardinals were 8-1 on the road. In non-primetime games, they were 11-3. How about when they were underdogs? That only happened 6 times—and the team went a perfect 6-0 with wins against the playoff-bound Titans, Rams, 49ers, and Cowboys. (Plus a win against what looked like a very good Browns team at the time.)
Why the disparity? Could it be that this team plays looser, more instinctive, better without those expectations? With no pressure? Again, I’m not a sports psychologist, but it’s a question worth pondering. We were an underdog in Week 1 in Tennessee but came out swinging and routed the eventual #1 seed in the AFC. Most people expected us to lose to Sean McVay and the Rams again in Week 4, but we blew them away. Just about everyone counted us out on the road in Dallas two weeks ago, but we came out and handled the Cowboys.
Can we do the same thing against the Rams on Monday? The expectations for this season are gone—we limped into the playoffs, but, hey, at least we made it. Most experts don’t expect us to beat the Rams, who are favored by 4. And it’s another primetime game, another big test to fail in front of the entire country.
The pressure is off, baby.
Which is when this team has been at its best.