After a big win against the Rams, the Cardinals face another must-win Sunday against the Titans.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Quarterback Carson Palmer scanned the other NFL scores after Sunday's win over the Rams and shook his head.
The Cardinals are doing everything they can to make the playoffs. They've won five of their past six games behind a top-tier defense and a steadily improving offense. Many websites publish weekly NFL power rankings, and Arizona is a common fixture in the top-10.
And yet, after the 49ers booted a late field goal to beat Seattle on Sunday afternoon, the Cardinals remain a
game out of both NFC wild card spots with three to play.
"You can't help but be bitter that the Seahawks didn't hold on," Palmer said.
While the Cardinals have excelled lately, the Panthers and 49ers aren't budging. Despite a loss to the Saints last week, Carolina has won eight of its past nine games. The 49ers have captured eight of their past 10.
Even with the win over the St. Louis, the Cards' playoff odds dropped from 12.3 to 11.3 percent, according to Football Outsiders.
"It has been really weird, man," offensive tackle Bradley Sowell said. "We're 8-5 and we're on the outside looking in, which is really odd. There are teams that have (already) won their divisions that are 8-5 and there are teams that are in there at 7-7. We'll hope to win a few and let everything take care of itself."
In most years, 10 wins is enough to make the playoffs, but the Cardinals may have to sweep the Titans, Seahawks and 49ers to finish at 11, and even then a berth is not guaranteed. San Francisco owns a tiebreaker over the Cardinals, while the Panthers could go 3-0 down the stretch against the Jets, Saints and Falcons.
At least the Cardinals are playing well enough to have a realistic shot.
"They're hot right now," Titans coach Mike Munchak said. "They've beaten good football teams. They're 5-1 the last six weeks with three games to go. As a coach, you (want to be able to) say we're on a hot streak in December and we're right in the middle of it. They just happen to be in a division that's one of the better ones in the league right now."
Coach Bruce Arians is well aware of the team's predicament. He's lobbed a few playful jabs at the weaker AFC of late, where the Cardinals would slot in as a playoff team right now. However, he also knows his team's had a chance to control its own fate, but close losses to the Rams, 49ers and Eagles let that slip away.
"We've had three opportunities on the road to have at least one win, if not two, and when you start looking back, when there is a rearview mirror in February, then you say, 'Oh, that one got us,'" Arians said. "Now, you just keep your head down and do what you can do."
While the 49ers and the Panthers are playing well, the prospect of an upset always looms in the NFL. Carolina lost to Buffalo earlier this year and nearly lost to the Dolphins. San Francisco lost by 20 at home to the Colts. Two days ago, the Chargers picked up a stunning road win over the Broncos.
If Carolina or San Francisco slips up, it could give the Cardinals an opening.
"That's what you're hoping for," linebacker Daryl Washington said. "But all we can do is control what we can control. Win out, then see what happens."
If the Cardinals beat the Titans, they will clinch just their fourth winning season since moving to Arizona in 1988. In the past, that may have been reason for celebration. But Arians has been a regular playoff participant in his years as an assistant coach, and the notable progress made this season won't satisfy him without a postseason showing.
"To me," he said, "it's all about getting into the dance."
If the Cardinals fall to Tennessee, their chances are almost certainly shot. They must continue to play well, and then hope, somehow or someway, the Panthers or the 49ers stumble down the stretch.
"The thing that we can control is these games," running back Stepfan Taylor said. "Whatever happens after that happens. We can't make another team lose. We just have to take care of our business."