While 2020 has been a year filled with ups and downs, so too has the season storyline of the Arizona Cardinals. After a 5-2 start was followed by four losses in five games, the franchise sits one game above .500 entering the final week of the regular season with their first opportunity to reach the NFL postseason since 2015.
All that stands in their way are the Los Angeles Rams and head coach Sean McVay, who is undefeated against Arizona in his tenure with a perfect 7-0 record, including a 38-28 road victory against the Cardinals in Week 13. Yet, that feat was accomplished with starting quarterback Jared Goff at the helm, a luxury they will not have in Week 17 after he had surgery to repair a broken thumb suffered Sunday against the Seattle Seahawks.
The game's current stakes could not be higher for the Cardinals: Defeat Los Angeles, qualify; tie, qualify with a Chicago Bears loss to the Green Bay Packers; lose, season ends. Similarly, the Rams are seeking a path to the playoffs with a victory over the Cardinals, although they have other qualification options even if they lose.
It did not need to become such a dicey situation for Arizona, though. Entering Week 16 against the injury-depleted San Francisco 49ers, the Cardinals had a chance to solidify their footing in the playoff chase with a victory. The result? A 12-point offensive output and an eight-point loss to a team starting third-string quarterback C.J. Beathard, who compiled three touchdown passes and no turnovers while throwing for less than 200 yards.
"I definitely felt like the 49ers played with a much greater sense of urgency," Cardinals head coach Kliff Kingsbury told Arizona Sports 98.7 FM's Bickley & Marotta Monday. "I thought they were more intense, more physical and really took the fight to us. Out-coached us and out-played us in every way and wasn't what we want to be about or who we want to be, there's no question. After reviewing it, getting through it, we're on to the Rams, but we know we have to get better in a hurry."
But why? And how? With so much at stake, the Cardinals appeared lifeless and were manhandled by a division rival sitting in last place in the NFC West with nothing to play for other than stifling their opponent's playoff hopes.
Kingsbury had no clear understanding.
"I don't have an answer for our lack of intensity or sense of urgency in a game like that," he said. "Regardless of who's in, who's out, what's happened, that's a divisional game. We know what they're about, we know how well-coached they are, we know how physical a team they are and we didn't answer the bell. That's disappointing. That starts with me. Our focus the last 24 hours has been, 'How do we get better in a hurry?' And, 'How do we get better to compete versus the Rams?'"
With the loss on the field, the Cardinals — if not just momentarily — also saw their ability to directly impact their playoff odds dissipate. Yet, with some help from the Seahawks in their win over the Rams, Arizona regained another opportunity to pave their own path to the postseason.
After they could not "answer the bell" in an important test last week, the question remains whether the Cardinals will be able to rise to the occasion with even greater pressure on their shoulders. In Kingsbury's eyes, he has the group to do it.
"Our guys are highly motivated; you don't make it to this level, sustain it, without being that," he said. "But as a staff, it's our job to make sure guys are ready to play. I think there's a healthy mix of both there. Am I ready to play knowing exactly what they do so they can play at a high level, they can feel confident to go out there and cut it loose? We didn't do that on Saturday. We've got to do it moving forward.
"I think overall, as a team, we have to get better. All of us got beat. We got out-coached and we got out-played. I don't think it's one of those instances where it's a group that can be singled out. You look top to bottom, we didn't play as well as we needed to play or we're capable of playing and that starts with me. We all got to be better this week."
A five-year drought is on the verge of collapsing and, as left guard Justin Pugh said Tuesday, "We have to go out there and we have to win one game and we're in the playoffs."
Easier said than done.
"If we don't (win) we don't deserve to play farther than that game, that's for sure," Kingsbury said. "They beat us seven times in a row and got after us just a couple weeks ago, so I wouldn't anticipate motivation or sense of urgency being an issue . . . We just have to find a way to to win ugly at times and that's something we're working through."