Though they narrowly missed the playoffs, the Cardinals surprised the NFL world, not to mention most of their own fans, with a 10-6 record under first-year head coach Bruce Arians in 2013.
With their first preseason game coming up in just three weeks, here are five reasons to be excited about what the Cards might achieve this year:
1. Last season’s success. The Cardinals’ history has largely been one of failure, and since they arrived in the desert via St. Louis in 1988, that tradition has, for the most part, continued. In 26 seasons in the Valley, the Cards have had exactly four winning seasons and have made the playoffs just three times. That’s why last year’s 10-6 record, which matched their best-ever regular season in Arizona, is such a big deal.
Arians, along with a sensational defense that was toward the top of the league in several categories, helped the Cardinals double their win total from 2012 to 2013 – and veteran quarterback Carson Palmer, along with young talent on the offensive end, could help the Cards become just as potent on that side of the ball this season. Speaking of which…
2. Michael Floyd and Andre Ellington. Based on their respective breakout seasons, big things are expected this year out of 2012 draft pick Floyd and 2013 draft pick Ellington. The Cards drafted Floyd, a wide receiver from Notre Dame, to complement Hall-of-Famer Larry Fitzgerald and give the team a true No. 2 receiving option. After an underwhelming rookie season, Floyd broke out last year with 65 catches for 1,041 yards and five touchdowns.
Ellington, a sixth-round pick from Clemson, had 5.5 yards per carry in his rookie season, the highest NFL average among players with at least 100 carries. His 1,023 total yards (652 rushing, 371 receiving) on just 157 touches are why many Cards fans are convinced that the team has found its running back of the future.
3. The secondary. In 2013, Arizona was No. 1 in the NFL in rushing yards allowed but a pedestrian 14th in passing yards allowed. That stat may improve in 2014 thanks to one of the youngest and most exciting set of defensive backs in the league. Fifth-year cornerback Patrick Peterson is quickly growing into an elite cornerback, and his former LSU teammate, 2013 third-round draft pick Tyrann Mathieu, could become one of the NFL’s top safeties.
In addition, the Cardinals added free-agent cornerback Antonio Cromartie, who has 28 interceptions in his eight-year career, in the offseason – and their 2014 first-round draft pick, Washington State safety Deone Bucannon, is a vicious hitter who can help the Cards fill a big-time gap: defending tight ends.
4. Great matchups. Half of the Cardinals’ 2014 regular-season games are against teams that made the playoffs last season, including three combined matchups against last season’s Super Bowl participants, the Seattle Seahawks (twice) and Denver Broncos (once).
Based on last year’s records, the Cardinals have the eighth-toughest schedule (.547 opponent winning percentage) among the 32 NFL teams. If the Cards are to make it to Super Bowl XLIX, they will have certainly earned their way. Speaking of which…
5. A chance at history. No NFL team has ever played in a Super Bowl in its home stadium. The Cardinals were one season away from becoming the first; in 2009, they lost to the Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl XLIII in Tampa Bay, but just one season earlier, University of Phoenix Stadium was the home for Super Bowl XLII (between the New York Giants and New England Patriots). With this season’s Super Bowl once again set for Glendale on Feb. 1, the Cards will get a second chance.