When the Cardinals went undefeated through Week 7, many speculated whether the NFL's best team resided in the desert.
But the optimism and excitement surrounding the team faded during the second half of the season. The Cardinals lost four of its next seven to close out the 2021 season, including a surprising Week 15 loss to the Lions.
The downfall cost the Cardinals an opportunity to finish atop the NFC standings, something the franchise has never done. It stole a chance to clinch the NFC West title, which the team has not accomplished in six seasons. Then the Cards ended the season with more disappointment, losing, 34-11, in an NFC Wild Card game on "Monday Night Football."
"I think it was a tale of two seasons," linebacker Jordan Hicks said Tuesday as the team began exit interviews. "Starting as fast as we did, as explosive as we did. Then somewhere, things started to fall apart -- adversity strikes on every team and in every season. We expected that.
"But great teams find a way to push through that and become better on the other side because of it. As much as we tried to push and fight through and figure out what was, it was too little, too late."
Asked if the Cardinals lost their edge, tackle D.J. Humphries was blunt.
"When you lose that many games in a row, you lost something," he said.
Coach Kliff Kingsbury said the turning part of the season occurred around Week 8 when the team lost star players – defensive end J.J. Watt, wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins, and quarterback Kyler Murray – to injuries.
Watt missed the remainder of the regular season with a shoulder injury before returning on Monday. Hopkins missed three games because of a bad hamstring and four more with a knee injury. Murray missed three games with an ankle injury.
"I thought we did a good job overcoming adversity by going 2-1 with (backup quarterback) Colt (McCoy)," Kingsbury said. "We were able to win two big road games in the division. But later, when adversity struck, we didn't respond as well.
"That's this league. If you're going to face it, you have to find ways to win despite different things that arise. We have to find a way to be better at that at the end of the season."
Kingsbury was asked about the struggles his teams have had, dating back to his time coaching Texas Tech, at winning in the second halves of seasons. He said he hadn't looked back at his college time.
"But the last couple, for whatever reasons, we haven't been as sharp," Kingsbury added. "That's something I have to continue to evaluate and figure out what we need to do, whether it's practice structure or different things of that nature because we have to be better.
"This league is about closing strong and building momentum going into the playoffs and unfortunately we didn't do that."
There were positives to take from the season. The Cardinals reached the playoffs for the first time in six seasons. The defense did improve and played well much of the season under defensive coordinator Vance Joseph. The franchise quarterback, while struggling mightily in his first playoff start, did set a franchise record for completion percentage and his 100.5 passer rating ranks second in franchise history behind Carson Palmer.
"I don't think that result should put a damper on the progress that we had as an organization in the past four years," tight end Zach Ertz said. "Obviously, I haven't been here for too long but just looking objectively about it: we've gone from three wins to five wins to eight wins to 11 wins.
"The reality of the situation is that there is only one team at the end of the year that will be happy with how the season ends. Unfortunately for us, we're not that one team. But they're a lot of positive steps that have taken place."