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Revisiting the Cardinals playoff question: Who can overtake us?

This RotB writer said the Cardinals wouldn’t make the playoffs a couple weeks ago. But perhaps his stance is changing after taking a look around the landscape of the NFC.

Syndication: Arizona Republic
Kliff has his work cut out for him this season with D-Hop’s 6-game suspension to start the season and his prolific history of second-half collapses. Can he figure things out and lead the team back to the playoffs?
Patrick Breen / USA TODAY NETWORK

A couple weeks ago, I wrote a piece declaring that the Cardinals didn’t look like a playoff team. I stand by that statement, in a vacuum. This just doesn’t look like a contending roster to me right now.

But the Cardinals don’t play in a vacuum, they play in the NFC, where 7 out of 16 teams (44%) make the playoffs. Keeping in mind that there is always somewhere around 50% turnover of playoff teams from one season to the next, if the Cardinals are going to miss the playoffs, as I contended, another team is going to have to take their spot.

But if you look around the NFC, the conference isn’t exactly replete with ascending teams who could swoop in and overtake the Redbirds this season. Let’s take a look around the NFC to see what I mean. I’ll group the teams in tiers, starting with last year’s division winners, who all look like solid bets to return to the postseason.

Note: Current playoff odds listed in parentheses.

Tier 1: True Contenders

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (-650)

Green Bay Packers (-475)

Los Angeles Rams (-280)

Dallas Cowboys (-280)

These four teams, in roughly this order, are probably the consensus four best teams in the NFC. They also have the best odds to make the playoffs of NFC teams at most betting websites I looked at. Now, none of these teams are locks for the playoffs—all it takes is one serious QB injury and each of these teams would pretty much be sunk. But for purposes of this exercise, let’s just assume each of these teams makes the playoffs. That leaves 12 teams, including the Cardinals, fighting for the final 3 playoff spots. I think they can be grouped pretty easily into two tiers.

Tier 2: In the Running

San Francisco 49ers (-220)

Arizona Cardinals (-125)

Philadelphia Eagles (-110)

Minnesota Vikings (+105)

New Orleans Saints (+170)

Washington Commanders (+210)

Let’s start with this tier of teams who should all be in the mix for the playoffs this season. They’re listed in order of descending odds according to the site I linked above. The top three all made the playoffs last season and look to be threats to do so again. The Vikings and Saints, who both have strong rosters, just missed out last season, and the “Commanders” (that’ll take some getting used to) were probably the next-best team among the rest. They also brought in Carson Wentz at QB, who figures to be at least a modest upgrade.

If the Cardinals are going to make the playoffs, they have to be one of the top two or three teams in this tier, depending on what happens to the teams in the tiers above and below them. Can they be? Absolutely. Will they be? I’m not so sure given the DeAndre Hopkins suspension and all the questions we have on defense.

But the rest of these teams have their question marks, too. Are Trey Lance and Jalen Hurts the answers at QB for their teams? How good is Kirk Cousins, really? Can Jameis Winston limit turnovers and keep his team in games? How good is Carson Wentz, really? And that’s just at the QB position. At least the Redbirds have their answer at QB in Kyler Murray, although his contract situation is still up in the air…

If these other teams get satisfactory answers to their QB questions, the Cardinals could be in trouble, especially if the defense plummets in the rankings like I think it will. But surely not all of the QBs in question will play well, right? But even if they don’t and some of the teams in this tier fall out of the hunt, there’s always the possibility of a cellar dweller surprisingly crashing the party.

Tier 3: The Bottom of the Conference

New York Giants (+250)

Chicago Bears (+310)

Seattle Seahawks (+360)

Carolina Panthers (+450)

Detroit Lions (+475)

Atlanta Falcons (+550)

These teams all look like longshots right now, but remember that a trio of 2020 last-place teams (the 49ers, Eagles, and Super Bowl runner-up Bengals) all made the playoffs last season. How did it happen? The 49ers got healthy, and the Eagles and Bengals both had young QBs take a leap forward. Is there anyone in this tier who could have a similar turnaround?

I think you could make a somewhat plausible case for each team. What if the lightbulb suddenly turns on for Daniel Jones under hotshot new HC Brian Daboll? It’s not like he’s been a completely useless scrub so far in his career and there is talent on that team. I’m less confident in Matt Eberflus turning Josh Fields into an above-average QB in Chicago, but stranger things have happened. I think Carolina is actually a bit more dangerous, especially if CMC is healthy and they can get anything approaching competent QB play from Sam Darnold.

It’s harder to make a case for the remaining three teams. Pete Carroll is one of the best coaches in the league and we know about the WR talent in Seattle, but I don’t know if I can picture Geno Smith or Drew Lock leading a team to the playoffs. Detroit should be better than they were last season, but they might have the worst QB depth chart in the conference, topped by the corpse of Jared Goff. And Atlanta has added some intriguing talent at the skill positions, but they’re in a full-on rebuild and Marcus Mariota hasn’t started a game since 2019. Still, stranger things…

Final Thoughts

Given league-wide parity over the past couple decades, we can say it’s probable (if not likely) that one team from Tier 1 will miss the playoffs and at least one team from Tier 3 will take everyone by surprise and make the playoffs. So those two tiers are likely a wash, which still leaves those six teams in Tier 2 duking it out for three spots.

Again: If they are one of the 2-3 top teams in that tier, they should make the playoffs. And the more I look at the rest of those teams, the more I think the Cardinals are just a bit better than most of them. I’m not ready to fully renounce my previous position—I still think our defense could be a major, major problem—but I’ll concede that our season outlook is perhaps a bit rosier than I made it out to be.