The Cardinals' top leaders -- wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald (11), cornerback Patrick Peterson (21), quarterback Carson Palmer (3) and defensvie tackle Calais Campbell (93) -- talk on the sidelines late in Sunday's 36-6 loss to the Seahawks.
The message was clear, from the time Bruce Arians talked about it last Monday to the inactives list pre-game to the players on the field to begin the game: The Cardinals were going to play to win, regardless of whether the NFC's No. 1 seed was possible.
But the message apparently did not translate to the practice field during the week, and it definitely did not translate to the play against the Seahawks at University of Phoenix Stadium.
"This was a valuable lesson today because you could see it coming all week," Arians said after the Cardinals were whipped, 36-6. "Coaches, players, all of them fell into that reading-the-press-clippings thing and anointed Super Bowl champs. This was a nice wakeup call."
The Cardinals closed out the 2015 regular season with their worst performance of the season, an ugly loss that echoed last
year's December debacle at University of Phoenix Stadium, right down to nearly the exact same score.
But that game was with Ryan Lindley at quarterback for the Cardinals. These Cardinals (13-3), who had their nine-game winning streak snapped, had their health and the knowledge they already had a first-round playoff bye as at least the No. 2 seed. Sure, the No. 1 seed was there if the Panthers lost -- Carolina didn't, rolling to a 38-10 win over Tampa Bay – but regardless, there was a chance to sweep the Seahawks and feel good going into the playoffs.
It was impossible to feel good after it was over, but the players, not surprisingly took a tact of looking ahead – and remaining optimistic about the postseason.
"Listen, you want to win every game," linebacker Dwight Freeney said. "I'm not saying this was a preseason game or anything like that, but sometimes, you can learn more from losses than wins. Especially when the games don't necessarily affect you.
"Hats off to them. That's a good team out there. They are humming right now. But that's football. The greatest thing is we have two weeks to figure it out. When was the last time we had two weeks to figure something out?"
The Cardinals will play Jan. 16 at University of Phoenix Stadium in the NFC Divisional round. The Cardinals could play No. 3 seed Minnesota, No. 4 seed Washington or No. 5 seed Green Bay.
That does not include the No. 6 seeded Seahawks (10-6), who continue to play well as they try to reach a third straight Super Bowl. The Seahawks could return to Arizona in the postseason, but it would be for an NFC Championship game only if the Seahawks were able to win their Wild Card game and then upset the Panthers.
after if the Cardinals should be concerned if the Seahawks returned for a playoff game, cornerback Richard Sherman was blunt: "They should be concerned."
Tweeted Seahawks defensive lineman Bruce Irvin, "They were who we thought they were!"
The Cardinals certainly weren't playing like the team that went into Seattle earlier in the season to beat the Seahawks. The Cards allowed a season-worst 36 points, and a top-five run defense gave up 145 yards, including the first 100-yard game to Christine Michael. Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson continued his torrid second half with three touchdown passes, while rookie Tyler Lockett averaged 34.8 yards a punt return as Seattle scored touchdowns on four of their first five possessions.
That was plenty against the Cards, who got within 10-6 early after Carson Palmer hit Larry Fitzgerald for a 17-yard score but did little afterward. Palmer completed just 12-of-25 passes for 129 yards before Drew Stanton relieved him in the second half.
Palmer sitting the final two quarters was always the plan, Arians said, but by then, it was also 30-6.
"We got beat and didn't play well enough," Palmer said. "Sometimes that's a good thing, going the way we had it going. Bring some guys back down to earth and get back to work. We believe in ourselves and we're not going to hang on this one very long."
Practice will certainly be something to watch (although practices are closed to the media.) Arians said the Wednesday workout wasn't good, and it slipped further Thursday on New Year's Eve. The players bounced back Friday, he said.
Arians warned the players of the potential letdown, and said team leaders "kind of brought it up to the other guys' attention" during the week. But it wasn't enough.
Cornerback Patrick Peterson paused a bit when told Arians called it a wakeup call. "If the bossman says it was a wakeup call, then it was a wakeup call," Peterson said.
But, Peterson added, "I didn't think we were too high or too low. … I didn't think we got overconfident or anything like that."
Where the Cardinals were before the game means little now anyway. They will return to the practice field Wednesday for three days of work before the bye, and see how the Wild Card round plays out. Then, it'll be one-and-done, knowing that another showing like Sunday's will mean a quick end to what has been a dream season.
"We're not in any way panicking or freaking out," Palmer said. "We know what happened. We got outplayed. … There is no silver lining. They played with more intensity, more energy, and they beat us.
"I think we're excited about the opportunity that they might be coming back here. Whoever comes here, we'll be ready."
Images of the Cardinals' regular season finale against the Seahawks