The Arizona Cardinals won 11 games for only the sixth time in franchise history and were the last undefeated team in the league at 7-0 this season.
They reached the postseason for the first time since the 2015 campaign, beating four other playoff squads to get there, including the divisional round-bound 49ers twice.
After a three-win 2018, five wins in 2019 and then an 8-8 2020, this year was another step up for the franchise.
Yet, after Arizona's "embarrassing" 34-11 Wild Card round loss to the Los Angeles Rams on Monday, veteran defensive end J.J. Watt called the season "a massive failure."
"From what we were capable of doing, and from what we showed we can do, to today, there's no other way to describe it then as a failure," Watt said. "We didn't do what we were supposed to do. We started the season great and we finished the season terrible. So, it is what it is."
Watt suffered multiple injuries in his shoulder in Week 7. He was told recovery was going to take 4-6 months, yet he got back on the field Monday, after only just two-plus months, because he thought this team had something special.
They had the best point differential and top scoring defense in the league at that point.
Yet, the Cardinals were, as head coach Kliff Kingsbury said postgame, outplayed and outcoached on Monday.
Arizona's offense started with four three-and-outs, two interceptions and another three-and-out. Los Angeles was up 28-0 before the Cardinals touched the ball in the second half.
Quarterback Kyler Murray agreed with Watt's failure statement, saying his goals were much higher.
"I played to win the Super Bowl," Murray said. "That's the goal. That's the mission, to win the Super Bowl, not to make the playoffs or go to the second round."
The Cardinals dropped four of their final five games to end the regular season. They had various injuries, including to top receiver DeAndre Hopkins, and saw a decline in clean football.
Perhaps the writing was on the wall.
Arizona similarly fell off in 2020, finishing the year 3-6 with consecutive losses in playoff-clinching games to end the season.
Progress was a theme after the campaign ended despite the disappointing finish. It was true, going from 5-10-1 to 8-8 was a step up, but it still felt like the team had the potential for more, for at the very least a playoff spot.
On Monday, the Cardinals were not competitive, falling behind early, failing to convert a single third down and getting outdone in all three phases. This was the No. 1 seed in the NFC for a good chunk of the season.
"Losing is one thing, but when you don't even make it competitive is another thing," Murray said. "So that's disappointing."
Kingsbury told reporters that Monday was a learning moment for his team, that the playoff experience will help it grow in 2022.
Progress is good, and this franchise overall had one of its best seasons.
Wide receiver Christian Kirk, who has been with the Cardinals since that 3-13 season in 2018, said he was proud to be on this team. He felt it overcame a lot of adversity, which is true with some of the injuries and COVID-19 cases that hit it.
But Arizona regressed down the stretch to where it did not stand a chance just 20 minutes into a playoff game against a division rival it had seen before.
Last offseason was a crossroad in a way.
The Cardinals had a lot of free-agent decisions to make regarding the direction of the team. They added veteran leaders on shorter contracts to go all-in while Murray is still on his rookie deal.
Arizona faces a similar situation with a lot of upcoming free agents, a looming contract extension negotiation with Murray and a need to figure out how to build a team that can more effectively last though a season.
"Keep trying to find new ways to improve later on in the season, whatever that may be," Kingsbury said. "That's definitely a priority this offseason."