We are down to the final four games of the regular season, and even with so many teams still alive for all manners of playoff significance, from the top seed and a first-round bye to all three of the Wild Card slots, some teams can begin clinching postseason tickets in Week 15.
The Arizona Cardinals are still licking their wounds, literally and figuratively, after their 30-23 loss to the Los Angeles Rams on Monday night. That loss dropped the Cardinals to 10-3 on the season, and saw their lead in the NFC West narrowed down to one game over Los Angeles.
But for all that ails them, Arizona can at least be assured of an NFL Playoff spot with a victory on Sunday. Let’s look at all the scenarios that present themselves to the Cardinals this weekend:
The Cardinals clinch a playoff berth with a win over the Detroit Lions, or with some help
The easiest path to a playoff berth comes with the easiest matchup in the league. The Cardinals travel to Detroit on Sunday to face the hapless Lions, who sit at 1-10-1 and are currently holding a half-game lead over the Houston Texans and Jacksonville Jaguars for the rights to the No. 1 pick in the 2022 NFL Draft.
The Lions might be the perfect opportunity for a Cardinals team stung by the loss to the Rams and faced with playing the rest of the regular season, at least, without DeAndre Hopkins, who injured his knee late in Monday’s game and is not expected back until sometime in the postseason, if at all. James Conner is also nursing an injured ankle sustained on the game’s final play, although running back Chase Edmonds is expected to be activated after his five-week stint on injured reserve.
A victory on Sunday guarantees at least a Wild Card berth and at least a one-game lead in the NFC West with three games to play. But even should the Cardinals fall victim to an enormous upset, they could go to bed Monday night knowing there will be at least one playoff game this season.
The Cardinals can also clinch a playoff berth if either the San Francisco 49ers or New Orleans Saints lose on Sunday, coupled with a Minnesota Vikings loss to the Chicago Bears on Monday night.
Cardinals pick the perfect time to run up against the Lions
The Cardinals are coming into Sunday’s game short-handed with the loss of Hopkins, but they are catching a Lions team that was struggling mightily to compete even at full strength. But as of Wednesday, it appeared running back D’Andre Swift (shoulder) and tight end T.J. Hockenson (hand) were candidates to miss another week of action because of their injuries, as neither practiced on Wednesday.
Whereas Matthew Stafford lit up the Cardinals defense for three touchdowns on Monday, the man the Rams traded to Detroit in exchange for Stafford, Jared Goff, does not appear likely to match that effort. After two weeks of competent quarterback play, including a three-touchdown performance of his own in the Lions’ only victory two weeks ago, Goff was merely ordinary against the Denver Broncos Sunday, throwing one touchdown and one interception in a 38-10 loss.
Regardless of which running back gets the lead role on Sunday, the Cardinals should have little trouble moving the ball on the ground, as the Lions rank near the bottom of the league in production allowed on the ground.
The Cardinals can get in with some help. Here’s what has to happen
If the Cardinals somehow manage to lose to the one-win Lions, hope for a Week 15 playoff clinch is not lost. Even at 10-4, the Cardinals can guarantee themselves no worse than the No. 7 seed if a pair of other scenarios play out, all hinging on the Monday night game in Chicago.
The only way the Cardinals get in without a win on Sunday is if the Vikings lose to the Bears. Given the way Justin Jefferson is playing right now, and after the Bears got trampled in the second half by the Green Bay Packers on Sunday night, the odds certainly do not favor a Vikings loss in this spot. But, hey, any given Monday, right?
In order for such an outcome to pay off for the Cardinals on Monday means one other team lost on Sunday to complete the mathematical equation that NFL postseason prognosticators live for each December. A Vikings loss, coupled with a loss by either the Saints or 49ers on Sunday, puts Arizona in the playoffs.
The 49ers are coming in hot off their overtime win over the Bengals on Sunday, and the Falcons, although just 6-7, are still very much a part of the playoff picture, with another 6-7 team, Washington, currently holding the No. 7 seed. So, it is certainly not a Lions-type certainty that the 49ers will win. But if they do, there’s still the Saints taking on the Buccaneers in a huge NFC South battle on Sunday Night Football.
The Buccaneers have all sorts of incentives here, not least of which revenge for their Week 9 loss to the Saints in New Orleans. The Buccaneers (10-3) can also clinch the division with a victory and stay on pace with the Cardinals and Green Bay Packers (10-3) for best record in the NFC.
Stats courtesy of Pro Football Reference