The Cardinals can still make the playoffs if the Bucs beat the Saints, but first, the Cards have to make sure they beat the 49ers.
It doesn't matter if actions or words speak louder. Either way, coach Bruce Arians is delivering the same message.
A cascade of groans echoed throughout Valley living rooms on Monday night when 49ers linebacker NaVorro Bowman returned a late-game interception for a touchdown to stave off the Falcons' upset bid. If Atlanta won, the Cardinals' playoff chances would have greatly increased, and during the game the fans' emotions swung like a pendulum.
Arians, though, has constantly preached the importance of focusing strictly on the team's controllable fortunes. So what was he feeling as the game hung in the balance? Nothing.
"I was asleep," Arians said.
The Cardinals are still longshots to make the playoffs, chiefly because the 4-11 Buccaneers must win a road game over
the 10-5 Saints. Even if that happens, the Cardinals must win their home game on Sunday against the 49ers, and that's the part Arians is worried about. The last thing he wants is for Tampa Bay to pull the upset and the Cardinals to lose and be left out.
San Francisco (11-4), the defending NFC champion, has won five straight games and clinched a playoff berth with the victory over the Falcons. And with the Cardinals' win over Seattle on Sunday, the 49ers are suddenly back in the race for the NFC West crown, which would give them a first-round playoff bye.
Throw in the rivalry between these teams, and it's a regular season game steeped in more anticipation than University of Phoenix Stadium has seen in a few years.
"I'm ready to play," Arians said. "It's fun to have this last one count. That's what we wanted all year, for this game to matter. And it matters."
The Cardinals (10-5) have now won seven of eight games for the first time since 1975, including over two teams – the Colts and Seahawks – which have already clinched postseason spots. The Cardinals are clearly playoff-caliber, but they're still given just a 17.2 percent chance to grab a wild card berth by Football Outsiders. While that's an increase of more than five percent following last week's upset of the Seahawks, the odds are still long.
The team practiced on Friday, not knowing if the season will be over on Monday or if it will be the start of the first week of playoff preparation.
"I've been in a bunch of these, where the last one counts and you don't know what's going to happen on Sunday with the other teams," Arians said. "This team has a chance to make history, and that's all we've talked about all week, the possibility of tying the franchise record for wins. Let the rest of the chips fall where they may."
If the Cardinals can find a way into the playoffs, they could be a scary matchup for the top seeds.
"We just want to keep playing," quarterback Carson Palmer said. "We want a chance, because we think every chance we get to play, we'll continue to play the next week."
Only one 11-5 team – the 2008 Patriots -- has missed the playoffs since the current divisional format was adopted in 2002. If the Cardinals and Saints both win, Arizona will become the second.
"That's on us, though," wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald said. "You look back and look at games: Having a 10-point lead going into the fourth quarter against St. Louis; we let the Philly game slip away. We could easily be fighting for home field advantage and a Week One bye. That's how the season goes. You have to take care of your business when you have the opportunity."
The game against the 49ers will be the final regular season outcome the Cardinals can impact. So even though they know full well the Saints-Buccaneers matchup will be played simultaneously, they promise not to take a peek at the scoreboard.
"I'm sure it's going to be plastered all over the stadium," Palmer said. "It's probably not going to be easy to avoid, but we have to focus on the team that's across from us."
If the Cardinals do that, and if they come away with their eighth win in nine games, they will set a new high-water mark for victories following the franchise's arrival in Arizona in 1988. They will also wrap up the year with sky-high optimism for 2014.
And then, they'll go into the locker room, check the Saints score and see if the playoffs await.
"We'll let it be a surprise," running back Andre Ellington said. "I feel like, that way, it will mean more."