Cornerback Justin Bethel sacks Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford during the Cardinals' easy win in Detroit in 2015.
DETROIT – The last time the Cardinals were here, they were a juggernaut.
The offense scored 42 points, the defense played so well the Lions benched Matthew Stafford, and the road blowout of a decent opponent raised the ceiling of expectations in 2015.
The Cardinals never slowed down that year, racing to 13 wins and an NFC Championship game appearance. But then came 2016, a season that began with Super Bowl expectations and ended with a 7-8-1 thud.
"Humble pie," offensive coordinator Harold Goodwin called it.
As the Cardinals prepare to kick off 2017 against the Lions, there are a wide range of opinions on where they stand. The players are confident they will bounce back, and some outsiders agree, citing the talent that still remains. Others believe the window of contention is closing fast.
After an unusually long preseason which included five exhibition games, it's finally time to find out.
"I think myself, all the players, the coaches, everyone upstairs – I think everyone's ready for us to go out and perform," defensive lineman Josh Mauro said.
Stafford threw three picks in 2015 against the Cardinals but has been a different quarterback since. He has 50 touchdowns and only 15 interceptions in 27 subsequent contests, registering a quarterback rating of 99.1. The Lions are 16-11 in that stretch. He signed a five-year, $135 million contract with $60.5 million guaranteed in late August.
"He got benched that day and he's got $100 million now," Arians said. "He got a hell of a lot better. Matt's one of the better players in the league. That was just one of those games."
The Cardinals will counter with a secondary that looked impressive in the preseason. Cornerback Marcus Cooper and safeties Tony Jefferson and D.J. Swearinger departed in free agency, but cornerback Patrick Peterson looks fantastic as always, safety Tyrann Mathieu is back to his old self and safety Tyvon Branch has an extra gear that was missing during an injury-plagued 2016.
"We know they're going to come out and we know they're going to throw the ball 40-plus times," Mathieu said. "If we can stop the run, we'll put the game in our hands, and as DBs we like that. We like our chances."
The Lions' pass rush was among the worst in the NFL a season ago, and star defensive end Ziggy Ansah may be on a snap count restriction as he recovers from a knee injury. Even so, the Cardinals must work to keep quarterback Carson Palmer clean, as he was sacked at a career-high rate in 2016.
While right guard Evan Boehm is the only new starter on the line, this is the first regular season action for Jared Veldheer at right tackle after years starting on the left.
"I think mentally you have to be really even-keeled, because obviously, playing left tackle for a long time you're just so used to it," Veldheer said. "You can really just go out there and it's pretty natural. On this other side, I've found that I've had to stay really level, not getting too high up, not getting too low or anxious, really just keeping it all in front of myself."
The Cardinals are more than ready to wash the sour taste of 2016 away, and like most NFL teams, sees a path to the Super Bowl.
"Everybody feels good right now," Palmer said. "Everybody feels like, if we can do this and if we can do that, we've got a shot, for the most part."
But that was the feeling last year, and a 1-3 start punctured the Cardinals' sails. An early game on the East Coast is tough, and the Cardinals will follow it up with another against the Colts next week. After an offseason of non-stop conjecture, a declaration of proof awaits.
"You think you know what you have," Arians said. "You hope you know what you have. But you don't really know until they get out there."
Images of some key players on the Lions heading into the Week 1 matchup in Detroit