GLENDALE, AZ - There are very few easy-looking games on the Arizona Cardinals’ 2014 regular-season schedule. The Cards will play three combined games against last season’s Super Bowl teams, and eight games against teams that advanced to last season’s playoffs.
Here’s a breakdown of the Cardinals’ top five most intriguing, and perhaps most important, matchups of 2014:
5. vs. San Diego Chargers (Week 1, Sept. 8)
The Cardinals will open the 2014 regular season by making their 10th appearance on Monday Night Football since their relocation from St. Louis to the Valley in 1988. The Cards are an appalling 1-8 on MNF during their time in the desert, with their only win coming at home against the 49ers in their Super Bowl season of 2008.
The Cards finished the 2013 regular season with a 10-6 record but missed the playoffs, while the Chargers finished 9-7 but advanced as the final Wild Card team in the AFC. Their opening-week matchup on ESPN could go a long way toward setting the tone for the rest of the season and deciding whether either team will advance to the playoffs in 2014.
4. at Seattle Seahawks (Week 12, Nov. 23)
Last season, the Cardinals ended the eventual Super Bowl champions’ 14-game home winning streak with a 17-10 win at Seattle three days before Christmas. It was Arizona’s defense that shined that day, holding the Seahawks to under 200 yards and sacking quarterback Russell Wilson four times.
Despite their eventual championship, there’s no doubt that the loss to their NFC West rivals left a sour taste in the mouth of Seattle players and fans – and if it’s possible, CenturyLink Field, which has built a reputation as the loudest stadium in the NFL, may be even more raucous than usual on Nov. 23 as the Seahawks seek to avenge last year’s late-season defeat.
3. at Denver Broncos (Week 5, Oct. 5)
The Cards are one of a handful of teams in 2014 who will have the privilege (or misfortune) of facing both of last year’s Super Bowl squads on the road. Their early-season trip to the Mile High City against QB Peyton Manning and the Broncos, which set a regular-season record with 606 points in 2013, will likely be the year’s most challenging matchup for Arizona’s defense.
Fortunately, the Cardinals will come into the game fresh off a bye week (after hosting the 49ers in Week 3). They’ll also visit Denver before the inevitable snowfall and freezing temperatures invade Sports Authority Field, thereby limiting the Broncos’ home-field advantage, if only slightly.
2. vs. Seattle Seahawks (Week 16, Dec. 21)
It will be first of two very difficult matchups to end the regular season, and it will be the Cardinals’ last regular-season home game of 2014. The Cards won six of their first seven games at home last season, but their only loss was a midseason 34-22 defeat against Seattle in a Thursday night contest.
If the Cardinals come into this game with eight or nine wins on the season, they’ll likely need at least one victory in their last two games in order to secure a playoff spot. Considering the opponent and location of their final regular-season game (see below), this may be the Cards’ last best chance to earn a W.
1. at San Francisco 49ers (Week 17, Dec. 28)
As ESPN.com NFL writer Mike Sando has noted, the Cardinals are owned by Bill Bidwill 363 days of the year; they’re owned by the San Francisco 49ers on the other two. The Cards have lost nine of their last 10 games against the 49ers, and two of their six losses in 2013 came against San Francisco, which has advanced to the NFC Championship game in each of the last three seasons.
It would only be fitting for the Cardinals to need a win against their NFC West rivals – the team that has claimed ownership over them – in Week 17 in order to advance to the playoffs. But a victory on the road in the 49ers’ new stadium in Santa Clara may be the biggest mountain the Cards will have to climb in 2014.