Expectations for the Cardinals have risen heading into 2021.
The near-miss of a postseason berth in 2020 is a part of the equation. As are the roster upgrades, veteran stalwarts like J.J. Watt, A.J. Green and Rodney Hudson along with rookies like Zaven Collins, Rondale Moore and Marco Wilson. A playoff drought since 2015 factors in.
As the season opener approaches Sunday in Tennessee, it'd be naïve for the Cardinals to acknowledge anything different.
"Every year in the NFL, there's pressure, so I just take it week by week and just focus on doing the best that we can," coach Kliff Kingsbury said. "But this was a team that was put together to win now. We have guys in the locker room now who are up in age and can still play at a high level. So, they have a sense of urgency to have a successful season.
Success will only come behind quarterback Kyler Murray. Step one was his Offensive Rookie of the Year season in 2019. Step two was a Pro Bowl selection in 2020, although his and the Cardinals' offense tailed off by the end of year.
Step three is what the Cardinals are waiting to see, expecting the trend to remain pointing up.
"I expect him to play at a high level," Kingsbury said. "I thought, last year, he took a really big step, and I expect him to take another big one this season. We're playing against a really good team, and we understand that. But he's looked really sharp in camp."
Green and Moore join Pro Bowler DeAndre Hopkins and Christian Kirk as an impressive receiving group. Chase Edmonds teams with James Conner for a new-look running tandem. Hudson fills a hole in what was a solid offensive line last season.
"If I don't make stuff happen with what I've got, I'm not doing my job," Murray said.
He'll do it against a Titans' defense that struggled much of the season last year, finishing 24th overall and with only 19 sacks as a team. They have tried to aid the latter with free-agent pass rusher Bud Dupree.
The Titans are about their offense, however. Derrick Henry, a 2,000-yard rusher, punishes defenses and has won back-to-back rushing titles. The Titans averaged more than 30 points a game and scored more than 40 points five times.
"The Titans' offense starts with Derrick Henry," safety Budda Baker said. "You have to be able to stop the run, especially on third-and-short. That's what they're great at. Stopping the run is the biggest thing. If not, you aren't beating the Tennessee Titans."
If the Cards do slow Henry, quarterback Ryan Tannehill already had star receiver A.J. Brown and now has future Hall of Famer Julio Jones.
Watt, who has played the Titans twice a year in his career when with the Texans, knows the opponent well. He'll be counted on to pressure Tannehill, as will Chandler Jones – who is coming back off an elbow injury that ruined his 2020, looking to get back to his 19-sack performance from 2019.
They'll need that kind of showing against a team that some think can be an AFC Super Bowl contender, especially on the road.
"I love playing against the Titans," Hopkins said. "Tennessee is a great team. You see what they do every year, especially since Mike Vrabel has been there. It's definitely a test for us playing against a team who went deep into the playoffs last year."