LOS ANGELES -- The 16th game of the 2018 season was the merciful end to an ill-fated campaign.
As the 16th game of 2019 approaches, the Cardinals don't want to stop playing.
While the team will finish several games under .500 for the second straight year, there is a decidedly merrier feel this holiday season.
The Cardinals (5-9-1) have won two straight games and are coming off their best showing of the season last time out in Seattle. They will wrap up the 2019 slate on Sunday against the Rams, feeling good about the offense and now much better about the defense.
"We're definitely playing at a very, very high level right now," cornerback Patrick Peterson said. "The only downfall is, I wish we had a couple more games left to really turn that corner."
The Cardinals were long ago eliminated from playoff contention but have not let that slow down their progress, as it has been a steady climb after a bumpy first month. Following an 0-3-1 start, they are 5-6, with a chance to go .500 in the final 12 games with a win.
After a season chocked full of moral victories, a road upset of the No. 1 seed in the NFC last week brought concrete validation to the process.
"We, on paper, have nothing to play for," linebacker Jordan Hicks said. "The integrity of this locker room, the men in this locker room – we went out there and played for each other, and played for something bigger than the specific circumstances of the moment. We played for the momentum going into next year, we played for each other, we played for the organization and the pride on our back."
The Cardinals are intent on finishing the season strong, and coach Kliff Kingsbury does not plan to approach this game differently despite knowing it is the last chance for in-game evaluations.
Quarterback Kyler Murray is dealing with a hamstring injury, but if he is 100 percent, the Cardinals will play him. Even if backup Brett Hundley starts, the focus will be on ending the year with three consecutive wins.
"We want to put our best foot forward and we're going to play the guys we think give us the best chance to win," Kingsbury said. "Guys are practicing really hard, working really hard, and they know we're going all in to try and win this game."
The Rams dominated the first matchup in Week 13, which was the season's nadir but one from which the Cardinals recovered. Los Angeles (8-7) kept its fledgling playoff chances alive with that win but was officially eliminated last week by the 49ers.
For a team that had Super Bowl aspirations, it was a brutal blow. However, coach Sean McVay doesn't believe there will be a letdown in the finale.
"We've got a bunch of guys that are wired the right way," McVay said. "Great competitors. When you compete for sprints after practice or a T-shirt or anything – they're always competing, and this represents a great opportunity for us to try to finish the season off the right way. It certainly has not been anywhere close to what we would like, but this is the opportunity that we do have."
While most of the focus has been on the Cardinals' offense this year, the defense played its best game of the season against the Seahawks and will be counted on heavily if Murray is sidelined.
Outside linebacker Chandler Jones will attempt to cap a terrific season with at least one more sack to reach 20 on the year. If he somehow gets four, Jones will have the NFL's all-time single-season sack record.
Between Jones up front and a more in-sync secondary, a much-maligned defense has found a groove the past three games.
"We're starting to really play together as a group," Peterson said.
With both sides of the ball trending positively, the Cardinals should already feel good about their trajectory heading into 2020. Another road upset to end the regular season would be a feather in the cap.
"There would be nothing better," wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald said, "than to go out with a win on Sunday."
Images from practice at the Dignity Health Arizona Cardinals Training Center