The Cardinals’ fanbase was stunned shortly after what many considered to be an overall successful draft by Arizona with news following a few days afterwards that their star receiver had tested positive for an NFL banned steroid substance and would not appeal.
Thus, the team would be without WR DeAndre Hopkins for the first 6 games of the 2022 NFL season.
Of course, this team made moves to secure Zach Ertz and AJ Green in the offseason and drafted TE Trey McBride as well as trading pick 23 overall for Hollywood Brown, but the departure still stings, and has led to some questions:
What might the first 6 games without Hopkins look like for Arizona to get by in the meantime?
Cardinals could really use some easy games within the first six. Need to stay afloat without D-Hop.— Kyle Odegard (@Kyle_Odegard) May 11, 2022
Before I begin with a look at a “best and worse” case scenario, let me be clear on one thing.
I don’t think it’s meaningful or worthwhile to predict individual games ahead of when the schedule comes out. Nor is it anything more than an exercise knowing that schedule previews and expectations are anything more than “on paper”. Reality doesn’t always match when projecting out.
See: a difficult Week 1 Patriots opponent in Week 1 of the 2016 NFL Season turned into what looked to be a much easier game without Tom Brady (suspension) and Rob Gronkowski playing.
And Arizona lost it, anyway.
Likewise, the Cardinals’ Week 1 matchup in 2021 against what looked to be a tough Titans team ended up as a cakewalk that they won by double-digits.
Still, there’s a logical and analytical way to look at the first 6 games based on how Arizona’s schedule has been the last 4 years (for takeaways=skip down to the next horizontal rule)
Here was the schedule over the last four seasons...
2018- 2021 First 6 Cardinals Games:
|vs. WAS||vs. DET||@ SF||@ TEN|
|@ LAR||@ BAL||vs. WAS||vs. MIN|
|vs. CHI||vs. CAR||vs DET||@ JAX|
|vs. SEA||vs. SEA||@ CAR||@ LAR|
|@ SF||@ CIN||@ NYJ||vs. SF|
|@ MIN||vs. ATL||vs. SEA||@ CLE|
|1-5||2-3 (1 tie)||4-2||6-0|
First thing to note is that:
- Arizona averages around 3 home games and 3 road games over the years.
- Some it was 4 out of the 6 opening at home, and in 2021 it was only 2.
- But we have never seen 1 home or 1 away game in the first 6 games given to a team.
- So, we can conclude 3/3 or a 4/2 or a 2/4 split are the only 3 outcomes for home/away games
Now, onto the more complex things: the teams they could face.
There are what I would call 5 categories, or types of games, and those will be what we I think is worth projecting as far as “difficulty” for the Cards and these are ranked as well in order of importance:
- NFC West Divisional Game (rival games vs. SF, LAR, SEA)
- NFC Divisional Games (play the NFC South this year)
- NFC Conference Games (play team in a difference division that finished in the same place as you, so Vikings/Eagles for 2022)
- AFC Divisional Games (play the AFC West this year)
- *AFC Conference Game (play team that is in the opposite division, new since 2021 with a 17 game schedule—this year it’s the 2nd place Patriots in the AFC East)
As far as difficulty goes, it’s pretty easy to pick out that the 3 most difficult types of games will be against the NFC West, the AFC West, and also the Bucs and Saints.
That doesn’t mean the Eagles/Vikings games will be “easy” obviously, but on paper those are the strongest teams as well as teams the Cardinals have struggled to beat over the last 4-5 years.
Let’s break these down individually below as to how the averages rounded out for each type...
NFC West: 1 Game Guaranteed, Possibly 2
The Cardinals had 7 NFC West games out of the 24 possible these last 4 seasons, with an interesting twist. In 2019 and 2020 they only had 1 NFC West game each.
But...they had 3 of them in 2018, which is a bit outside the norm.
The fact that Arizona averaged just around 2 games per season means they likely will take on one of the Rams, Niners or Seahawks, and possibly a second. They won’t play San Francisco at home given the International game being already announced for November.
NFC Division: 1 game guaranteed, Likely 2
The average games played against an NFC Divisional opponent on the schedule was 1 in 2018 and 2, 2, 2 for the other 3 seasons.
With how most of the time we see the schedule SPLIT between home and away (3-3) for the first 6 games, I think it’s unlikely that Arizona draws both the Bucs AND Saints at home...most likely it’s a mix of one of the Bucs/Saints at home and one away of the Falcons/Panthers.
Never say never, though...It would be an unlikely and VERY unlucky draw to pull an additional home game that guarantees Brady and the Saints without Hopkins but it’s possible.
NFC Conference Opponent: 1 game (almost) guaranteed
Arizona’s lined up to play the Eagles and Vikings this year, and in the past we have seen it very consistently where Arizona has played one of these two teams in this category in the first 6 weeks.
2018-2021 had these types of games line up as 1, 1, 2, 0, so an average of 1 game in the first 6 weeks.
I could try to guess it would be an early Eagles game at home since they played the Vikings early last year, but there’s no point in putting together that many puzzle pieces
AFC Divisional Opponent: 1 game guaranteed, possibly 2
Same as the NFC West odds. The Cardinals will almost undoubtedly be playing one of the Broncos, Chiefs, Raiders or Chargers in the first 6 games without DeAndre Hopkins.
There’s a solid chance that they play two of them also, as we saw this happen twice in the last 3 years, playing Cincy and Baltimore in 2019 and Tennessee and Jacksonville in 2021.
The only time Arizona did NOT have a game against their AFC Divisional opponents for that year in the first 6 games was the 2018 season in which they played the NFC West three times.
I think that while you might make up for one of the more difficult games without Hopkins should that happen (as you will be guaranteed to play Seattle who is not great on paper) you might prefer to have him on hand for as many divisional games as possible.
That leaves us with...
AFC Conference Opponent w/ Same Record: Possibly 1 game
This was the newest set of games added as we only really have seen in last year when the Cardinals took on the Cleveland Browns, who finished 3rd in the AFC North along with Arizona in 2020. This year it’s the New England Patriots in a home game.
No one wants to say that Belichick is an easy game, or a meaningless one. However...in the grand scheme of things, Divisional and Conference games ARE more important for making the playoffs and for winning or competing for your division. So this one is pretty low on the list.
Now, where does that leave us?
Here is what is most likely to see given averages over the first 6 weeks:
- 1 NFC West game, maybe 2
- 1 NFC South game, likely 2
- 1 NFC Conference game, possibly 2
- 1 AFC West game, maybe 2
- Possibly 1 AFC Conference game at home
Now, for the best and worst cases from pulling this info...
So an optimal first 6 games schedule that is mathematically (assuming we don’t see an outlier season where AZ plays 3 NFC West or AFC West teams in weeks 1-6) would be a combo of:
-Vikings on the road
-Falcons on the road
-Pats at home
-Seahawks on the road
-Chargers at home
-Eagles at home
You avoid Brady, Mahomes, the Saints and don’t play the Rams and Niners until later in this outcome.
(For now I’m still going to keep in mind the Cardinals and Seahawks’ records in each other’s stadiums and will roll with it because it seems inevitable just about every year!)
That is doable AND realistic, even if it’s one less home game.
Now for the worst case…
Let’s say AZ doesn’t get an easy roll like above but instead has a tougher draw in their own division...along with 2 AFC West games:
-Brady w/ Tampa at home
-San Fran on the road
-And the Rams on the road
-Chiefs at home
-New Orleans at home
-Panthers on the road (assuming Matt Rhule beats Kliff again)
In the words of a man who’s been gut punched,
That’s a rough draw!
This tougher lineup seems to be more possible, although I think Arizona does play the Raiders earlier in the season, it’s possible that they end up a Week 7 or 8 opponent.
There might be some balance to hope for, however, for Cards fans, as I think there’s a decent chance that Seattle takes the place of San Francisco and Oakland ends up taking the place of the Saints or “Tompa” Bay.
So perhaps I’d guess something like TB/SEA/LAR/LV/PHI/CAR are the first six opponents. Not optimal...but not the WORST CASE scenario here.
Remember when it comes to Arizona this year..they do have a tougher schedule.
Where's your team at? pic.twitter.com/6RO1hPEITx— NFL on CBS (@NFLonCBS) May 10, 2022
So I’ll have the above as my “guess” for the opening 6 games in where Arizona ends up with 4 “hard” games to start the season.
Odds are that would be the case anyway...
No games are a “cakewalk” in the NFL, after all
This is where a 3-3 start may be crucial for the Cards to do, despite the difficulty, because when Hopkins comes back that should provide a boost on paper to their overall team.
And with how the Cards have done best with a hot start only to fade down the stretch in the last few years it will be a place where they need to ensure they can go 3-3 at worst and be able to balance the ship enough to hopefully reverse the trend.
What are your thoughts on the Cards’ likely draw?
Sound off in the comments below!