Larry Fitzgerald and the Cardinals are ready to play the Panthers in their Wild Card game after a rough finish to the season.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. – The Cardinals are not exactly steamrolling into the playoffs.
They've lost two straight and four of six. They're down to third-string quarterback Ryan Lindley on offense, and the defense has failed to pick up the slack the past two weeks. Despite this, the players have walked around with a "pep in their step" this week, according to defensive end Calais Campbell.
It seems nothing quite solves previous woes like the beginning of the second season.
The Cardinals have been through more than their share of adversity this year, but here they are, back in the playoffs for
the first time since the 2009 season. They will face the Panthers in the Wild Card round on Saturday at 2:35 p.m. Arizona time, one of a dozen teams still left standing.
"My wife's cooperating with me, my kids have been behaving, even the dog knows – it's playoff football," linebacker Larry Foote said. "I can't explain it. Even in the locker room. The locker room is different. Meeting rooms are different. The coaching's different. The coffee tastes different. It's the best time.
"We know there are only 12 teams left. There are a lot of guys around this league doing exit interviews and playing golf, worrying about where they're going to work out in the offseason. Right now, we're still in it."
The Cardinals won four more games than the Panthers this season but have to hit the road because Carolina won the NFC South. Carolina beat just one winning team in 2014 – the Lions in Week 2 – and started the season 3-8-1, but won its final four games to become an unlikely postseason entrant.
While the Cardinals had a better overall body of work, the Panthers are favored to win. They're at home and have starting quarterback Cam Newton under center, while Cardinals coach Bruce Arians confirmed Thursday he would use Lindley for a third straight start as Drew Stanton continues to recover from a knee injury.
Lindley had his best day as a pro in the regular season finale, completing 23-of-39 passes for 316 yards and two touchdowns, but also with three interceptions in a 20-17 loss. If he can duplicate that, it will give the Cardinals a chance to pull the upset, although the defense must get back to its dominant ways.
The Seahawks and 49ers combined to score 55 points and rush for 473 yards over the last two games, both Cardinals
losses. Arians hopes Lindley's performance against San Francisco will let the defense settle down and not feel like it has to play perfectly.
"You play a little looser when you feel like your offense is going to score points and you don't have to win the game," Arians said. "When you feel like you have to win the game, you'll press and you'll do too much."
The Cardinals wideouts did a nice job in San Francisco, especially Michael Floyd, who had a season-high 153 yards receiving and two touchdowns. If the offense surrounding Lindley performs well, it will be a big boost, but he doesn't enter the game feeling cautious.
"It's a dream for everybody (to start a playoff game)," Lindley said. "I've always said that you don't stick around in the league unless you're aspiring to play. That's not subversive at all to the guy that's in front of you. It's just you aspire to be the best you can and compete each day. I would probably have told you this was a dream, but I'm just excited now that it's a reality."
The Cardinals are 3-0 in Wild Card games in their history. They defeated the Cowboys in 1999, the Falcons in 2009 and the Packers in 2010. If the Cardinals win, it will mean either a third matchup against the Seahawks or a trip to Green Bay.
Getting to that point won't be easy. The Panthers are playing well despite their record, and the Cardinals must reboot and find the formula which helped them start 9-1.
The Cardinals had a regular season full of twists, from a dream start to season-altering injuries to a rough finish. That's all behind them now. They'll roll into the playoffs with their Super Bowl aspirations still intact. It's up to them to decide how it plays out.
"It was almost like preseason getting ready for the real deal," cornerback Patrick Peterson said. "Now that we made it, whatever happened (for) 17 weeks doesn't matter. Our record is 0-0. Everybody's starting off with a clean slate, and it's all about winning three games to get to the championship."
Stanton was officially ruled out Friday, although Arians had already said he wasn't playing. Defensive tackle Dan Williams (foot) and guard Jonathan Cooper (wrist/knee) are listed as questionable.
For the Panthers, safety Thomas DeCoud (hamstring) is doubtful, while linebacker A.J. Klein (ankle) is questionable.