Nov. 25, 2012; Glendale, AZ, USA: St. Louis Rams cornerback Cortland Finnegan (31) tackles Arizona Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald (11) at University of Phoenix Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Arizona Cardinals: Breaking Down Their Road to the Playoffs

Every team strives to get into the playoffs, but some have tougher roads to the playoffs than others.

Unfortunately for the Arizona Cardinals, they have a harder road than a lot of teams. Based on 2012 records, the Cardinals have the seventh-toughest schedule in the NFL. Arizona is in a tough conference, as there are no terrible teams in the NFC. In addition, the Cardinals have four games against the Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers.

Last year, the Philadelphia Eagles and Detroit Lions had the worst records in the NFC. However, Philadelphia added some help on its offensive line and defense, and it added a new coach in Chip Kelly. The Eagles have talent, and they’re definitely going to improve upon their 4-12 2012 season.

The Lions had a lot of bad luck in 2012, but they have an explosive offense that ranked second in the NFL. Calvin Johnson is likely the best receiver in the NFL, and he will be supported by Reggie Bush, who is a talented running back who can break tackles and make plays in space. If Detroit’s defense improves, it could contend for a playoff spot.

If these teams had the worst records in the NFC, then it’s safe to say that every NFC team will present a challenge. Arizona plays 12 NFC teams, and six of those are in the NFC West. The St. Louis Rams, who added Stedman Bailey and Tavon Austin in the draft to help Sam Bradford on offense, will play the Cardinals in two of those games, and the 49ers and Seahawks will be Arizona’s opponent in two other games.

Seattle and San Francisco are well-rounded teams, as the two ranked first and second in points allowed in 2012. In addition, both have explosive, young quarterbacks, and both have playmakers around the quarterbacks on offense. It will be very hard for the Cardinals to take even one game from the 49ers or Seahawks, and it’s not going to be easy for the Cardinals to beat the Rams either.

The NFC West is a hard division to play in, but the AFC South isn’t. The Cardinals have four winnable games against the AFC South, as the Indianapolis Colts and Houston Texans, both playoff teams in 2012, will come to the desert to take on the Cardinals, while Arizona will travel to Jacksonville and Tennessee to take on the Jaguars and Titans. Jacksonville and Tennessee combined to go 8-24 in 2012, so neither team is going to present much of a challenge.

The AFC South is a division that the Cardinals will have to succeed against to make the playoffs, though. They’re going to play the Eagles, Lions, New Orleans Saints, Carolina Panthers, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Atlanta Falcons, and none of those teams are going to be easy to beat. However, most of those teams struggled on defense, so if Carson Palmer and Larry Fitzgerald can hook up for a few completions the Cardinals will be able to win.

Arizona’s schedule may appear challenging, but a lot of the games are winnable. Because the Cardinals took major stride towards a better future with a strong showing this offseason, they can definitely win a lot of these games.

Obviously, not all winnable games are won. However, the Cardinals have what it takes to win a solid amount of games and contend for a Wild Card spot. Palmer has never received lots of offensive support, but he’s going to have a stellar running game to deflect attention away from him and a star receiver to make big plays.

Apr. 2, 2013; Tempe, AZ, USA; Arizona Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer during a press conference to announce his signing with the team at the Cardinals practice facility. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Palmer will also have a good defense on his side. Arizona’s defense also ranked 12th in the NFL in total defense, and while Daryl Washington is going to miss at least four games, Kevin Minter can step in and make an impact as Washington’s replacement. The Cardinals will face some high-profile offenses this year, as they have a combined seven games against the Lions, Saints, Falcons, 49ers and Seahawks.

While those teams are always hard to stop, the Cardinals can stop some high-profile offensive attacks. Arizona has Tyrann Mathieu and Patrick Peterson, two difference-makers, in the secondary, and Peterson is already one of the league’s best corners. Peterson defensed 16 passes and intercepted seven in 2012, which were both nearly the best in the league.

Peterson will have some tough tasks in 2013, but he’s up to the challenge. Calvin Johnson, the NFL’s best receiver, will be facing the Cardinals in Week 2, and Percy Harvin and Michael Crabtree will square off with Peterson twice in 2013. The Cardinals should be fine with these matchups, though. Peterson is a playmaker who has the cover skills to take any receiver.

The offensive line is another hurdle, but as long as Jonathan Cooper, Arizona’s first-round pick, can help improve a unit that surrendered 58 sacks in 2012, the Cardinals should be fine. The Cardinals will face some good pass-rushers, such as J.J. Watt and Aldon Smith. However, the line should be up to the task.

The Cardinals are a very well-rounded team, and they are definitely going to win some of the close games they lost last year with improved quarterback play.

The Cardinals lost close games to the Falcons, Vikings, Jets and Bills in 2012, and all of those games were winnable. Matt Ryan was harassed by Arizona’s defense, and the Cardinals should definitely be able to repeat their outstanding defensive performance and beat the inconsistent Falcons at home. Games like the one against the Jets (Arizona got no offense going and lost 7-6) aren’t going to happen again, and that’s going to make a huge difference.

Overall, the Cardinals have lots of obstacles to climb to get to the playoffs. However, they can definitely make it in as a Wild Card team. The Cardinals improved greatly, and they will be able to take the challenges presented by good teams. Most of Arizona’s harder games (such as games against Atlanta, Indianapolis and Houston), are at home, which gives them an advantage.

Don’t expect the Cardinals to cruise through the schedule, and expect them to play some bad games. However, expect them to stay in the playoff chase until the very end. As long as Arizona shows noticeable improvements (particularly in close games), it will be right in the thick of the playoff hunt.

Why? Because it has a manageable schedule and a good team.

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Tags: 2013 NFL Schedule Arizona Cardinals Carson Palmer Larry Fitzgerald Nfc West Predictions

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