Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald congratulates wideout J.J. Nelson on a touchdown in the preseason.
A decade ago, Larry Fitzgerald didn't care that a Super Bowl parade in Phoenix was less likely than a snowstorm.
Even as the losing seasons mounted, the Cardinals' star receiver would take the field every Sunday and play as if a championship was on the line. But he must admit, reality is much more enticing these days.
The Cardinals will begin arguably the most-anticipated year in franchise history with a nationally televised "Sunday Night Football" clash against the Patriots. It's the first meaningful game since last year's NFC Championship game loss to the Panthers, and the Cardinals are on everybody's short list to make a deep playoff run once again.
"We've got to be able to find a way to build on what we did last year, obviously, because it wasn't enough," Fitzgerald said. "What we did as far as winning in the regular season was outstanding, and we want to build on that. There's a big difference between being the hunter and being the hunted. We're not sneaking up on anybody any more. People are going to be respecting us when we come to town, and when they come to town, we're going to get their best shot every single week, and we understand that."
The Cardinals won a franchise-record 13 regular season games a season ago and return every player on offense who gained a yard. The defense has changed more but could be better with the additions of outside linebacker Chandler Jones and defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche.
As the regular season kicks off, the Cardinals are embracing lofty expectations.
"People are right," quarterback Carson Palmer said. "We are pretty good. Now we've got to go out and play it and prove it and back that up. But to be on a team that you know has a shot, that people are putting a circle around you on their schedule and a bull's-eye on you … it's a good thing."
The Patriots have equally realistic title aspirations in 2016, but will play the opener without Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski. The star quarterback is serving the first of his four-game suspension for his role in Deflategate, while the star tight end has been ruled out with a hamstring injury.
The Cardinals will be expected to win since they have a full complement of stars and the home field advantage, but the Patriots still have Bill Belichick, one of the finest minds in the league. He's had all offseason to dream up a game plan meant at attacking the Cardinals' weak spots.
The Patriots have won four Super Bowls under Belichick, and even in 2008 when Brady was lost for the season, New England went 11-5 with backup Matt Cassel. Jimmy Garoppolo will be making his first career start, but it's impossible to count out the Patriots.
"They have a philosophy and a plan that they follow," Cardinals coach Bruce Arians said. "You always hear about the Patriot Plan, and it's a damn good one. It's worked for a long time."
Cardinals safety Tyrann Mathieu will play for the first time since tearing his ACL in December last year, while right tackle D.J. Humphries and cornerback Brandon Williams make their NFL debuts.
There will be eyes on that trio since they are among the team's biggest question marks, but overall, this is a team very similarly constructed to last year. The Cardinals have won 10, 11 and 13 games the past three regular seasons, and there's legitimate reason to believe 2016 could be the best year yet.
"Most teams that go that far – make it to the Super Bowl or (runs) like that – a lot of people want to get paid," running back Chris Johnson said. "The team splits up. Every year it's a different team. I've never been a part of a team where the whole entire offense came back the next year and added more pieces.
"To know that we have an opportunity to be better than last year, it's exciting."
Images of past matchups between the Cardinals and this week's opponent, the New England Patriots