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Cards Don't Want To Miss On First One

As team found out last year against Rams, opener against Chargers can loom large


The Cardinals want to make sure they start faster in 2014 than they did in 2013.

When the Cardinals host the Chargers on Monday night, it will be exactly one calendar year from last season's opener in St. Louis.

There will be a completely new feel, with a changed roster, a home game and heightened expectations after a 10-win campaign in 2013. In many ways, the 27-24 loss against the Rams is nothing but a distant speck in the team's collective memory.

In another, it's a stark reminder of each game's importance, especially in the abbreviated 16-game schedule of the NFL.

"You can't give away wins in this league, especially that first one," defensive end Calais Campbell said.

Things were rolling smoothly for three quarters that day, as rookie Tyrann Mathieu burst onto the scene with an incredible forced

fumble near the goal-line and Larry Fitzgerald caught two touchdown passes, the second of which gave the team a 24-13 lead.

Then the wheels fell off, as St. Louis scored 14 points in the final 13 minutes to rally for the victory. The Cardinals put it behind them and finished the season impressively with seven wins in nine games, but the loss lingered. Every time the Cardinals pulled out an important victory down the stretch, so too would the other playoff hopefuls.

Even with the great finish, the team was not able to control its own destiny, and knew before the finale against the 49ers that it was eliminated from postseason contention.

"In this league, every game counts," safety Rashad Johnson said. "We missed it by maybe a game last year, and the opener against St. Louis was a game that we had in hand, a game that we felt like we could have won, but in the fourth quarter we didn't make the plays that we needed to make."

So as the bright lights of Monday Night Football descend on University of Phoenix Stadium for the opener, the Cardinals will soak it all in, but still stay focused on the task at hand. One bad quarter might not feel like a big deal, but as last year showed, it can have an enduring effect.

"In our division, every game is so critical," Campbell said. "You have to approach every game as it's the most important one, because it is. You don't have room for error because our division is so strong."

The Cardinals have some adversity to overcome as the season begins. There are the three high-profile losses of linebacker Daryl

Washington, linebacker Karlos Dansby and defensive tackle Darnell Dockett, and now the service of electric running back Andre Ellington is in question due to a foot injury.

Ellington led the NFL in yards per carry at 5.53 last season, and coach Bruce Arians spoke of getting him the ball 25-to-30 times a game this year. Ellington did not practice Friday but returned in limited fashion on Saturday, and will be a game-time decision.

If he can't go, Jonathan Dwyer is expected to start at running back, while backups Stepfan Taylor and Robert Hughes figure to see an increase in playing time.

Safety Tyrann Mathieu is also listed as questionable as he tries to return from the torn knee ligaments he suffered on Dec. 8 of last year. Mathieu has been practicing for a couple weeks and hopes to be ready, but the tea leaves suggest he may not be up to speed quite yet.

"He's getting better every day, but you have to understand, even if he's healthy this is like training camp for him," defensive coordinator Todd Bowles said. "You can't just practice a guy and then throw him out there and say go for it. He's looking good in practice, and coach (Arians) will decide that when it comes down to it."

At the beginning of 2013, the internal belief wasn't quite there for the Cardinals. Arians said the loss to the Rams and a later one in San Francisco was due in part to the lack of conviction across the roster. By the end of the year, the swagger picked up and the Cardinals became one of the most dangerous teams in the NFL.

It was a long offseason for a team which came so close to making the playoffs, and despite the time away and a roster churn which brought in many new faces, the confidence never left. The Cardinals will play in the final game of the opening week, but this time around, they believe only the schedule-makers can force them into the slow start.

 "Guys just believe in each other," linebacker Lorenzo Alexander said. "We have that chemistry. Compared to last year, when we were trying to figure it out, feel through some things and we missed some opportunities. You saw the growth in the team over the year, and hopefully we start that in that place and build from there, not have to start from scratch."

Images of key players for the Chargers, who will play the Cardinals on Monday night

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