The Cardinals try to break their losing streak Sunday against Denver.
It's been a few years since the Cardinals got to this point in the season – four games left – and weren't making some kind of effort toward a playoff berth.
That's where the Cards are now though, hosting Denver Sunday, with mathematics the only thing keeping postseason hopes away from an official death. The normal motivations are lost.
Motivations aren't gone, however. They are just adjusted.
"Nobody likes losing, so as a competitor you want to get to the game and do your best," running back LaRod Stephens-Howling said. "Also, every time you are on the field you are signing your name off. That film is not going to be erased just because we're not making the playoffs. People are going to be watching."
The Cardinals (3-9) are at home in the attempt to snap a seven-game losing streak. They are playing an equally struggling Denver Broncos (3-9) who just fired head coach Josh McDaniels this past week, leaving them in the hands of interim boss Eric Studesville, who was the Broncos' running backs coach.
The Broncos are listed as favorites, however, which underscores the issues the Cardinals are having, including the need to start rookie third-string quarterback John Skelton this week because of injuries to both Derek Anderson (concussion) and Max Hall (injured reserve with a shoulder).
What Skelton can deliver considering his scout-team status most of the season will be the most interesting theme Sunday. Yet the focus ultimately will be on everyone's performance, and how they show up in the face of the dwindling season.
"I don't think I have to tell them that, I think everyone knows that," coach Ken Whisenhunt said. "I think we are in the situation where everyone is being evaluated. If you are not performing, it's going to affect you going forward. They are professional athletes. They understand what is at stake. I have heard it said they should be more motivated now than they ever have been because they are playing for their jobs."
The Broncos have already been doing the same – "That's your job, that's what you're expected to do," quarterback Kyle Orton said – and Orton, for one, sounded matter-of-fact when asked about losing McDaniels, who not only was the coach but also the team's playcaller for what had been an effective offense most of the season.
Now the Broncos have assistant Mike McCoy calling plays, so Whisenhunt acknowledged it will be difficult to know exactly how Denver will attack the Cards.
Defensively, though, the presence of Skelton will likely mean one thing: Heavy pressure.
Whisenhunt and Skelton both made clear Friday winning is still the main priority. Skelton wants a victory for his teammates; Whisenhunt brushed aside the idea Skelton needs to play to evaluate him and has talked often about using the players who best give the Cards a chance to win.
Not that increases the responsibility on Skelton. Skelton said he isn't the nervous type, although he will feel "anxious" to get in his first start even after playing most of the fourth quarter last week.
As for the rest of the team? Seeing Skelton provides one potential glimpse of down the road, which, at this point, can't be ignored.
"You try not to think about (the future) too much but it's hard not to," defensive end Calais Campbell said. "With our season not being able to make the playoffs, you do start to think, 'What about next year? Can we get the pieces in order so we'd be able to be a Super Bowl team next year?' "
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