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Five reasons the Arizona Cardinals will make the 2021 Playoffs

Johnny Venerable Avatar
September 9, 2021

In case you’ve been living under a rock for the past half-decade, the Arizona Cardinals are in a playoff rut.

The red birds have not reached the postseason since their NFC title game appearance back in 2015. The five year playoff drought is tied for the second longest (Denver Broncos, Cincinnati Bengals) in all of pro football.

It remains the longest active drought in the entire NFC.

The 2015 Cardinals were, of course, led by the now Super Bowl winning head coach Bruce Arians alongside veteran quarterback Carson Palmer. Desert stalwarts Larry Fitzgerald and Patrick Peterson were still dominating on Sundays, while newcomers David Johnson and John Brown were quickly solidifying themselves amongst the NFL’s elite.

Oh, how times have changed.

The five-year absence from the post season also represents the longest run under Cardinal Owner and Team President Michael Bidwill. The previous drought was capped at four years (2010-2013), but did include a 10-6 non-playoff season in 2013.

The absence from postseason play is made even more frustrating thanks in part to the team’s collapse down the stretch last season. Following a blistering 6-3 start, the redbirds limped to a 2-5 finish before losing out on the final wild card spot to the also 8-8 Chicago Bears (via a tiebreaker).

That was with the inclusion of the third wild card.

Fast-forward to 2021 and while the Cardinals do possess one of the league’s most improved rosters, their divisional counterparts each have considerably better odds to reach the postseason.

The Rams (-195), Niners (-177) and Seahawks (-125) are all better positioned (according to DraftKings Sportsbook) to play January football compared to the Cardinals (+190). While it’s theoretically possible for all four NFC West teams to reach the postseason, it remains highly unlikely given the multiple, in-division games.

As we’ve come to see, the NFC West typically beats up on one another.

So with both history and Vegas odds working against them, what do the Arizona Cardinals need to have happen for them to finally break their five-year postseason drought?

Here are five reasons why the Arizona Cardinals will make the playoffs in 2021.

  1. Dominating defensive front

Since Calais Campbell’s departure from the Cardinals following the 2016 season, you could make the argument no team has fielded a more marginal group of defensive linemen than Arizona.

Yet, with one swift offseason signing of future Hall of Famer J.J. Watt, the perspective of the Cardinals big men upfront seemingly changed overnight. Watt joins a group of promising, yet underdeveloped defensive linemen that includes the likes of Zach Allen, Rashard Lawrence, Leki Fotu and Michael Dogbee.

Then there is last year’s big ticket addition, Jordan Phillips, who has been a major disappointment following his three year, $30 million dollar free agent deal. Phillips missed a large portion of the 2020 season, was absent from nearly all of training camp and will begin this season on injured reserve.

Yet if the Cardinals are going to take that next vital step, the team needs significant contributions from the likes of Phillips (whenever he’s healthy enough to play) in addition to Watt. Both veteran defensive tackles possess the rare ability to rush from the interior; a welcomed skill that would greatly complement the edge pressure dealt by Chandler Jones.

Speaking of Jones, the team also needs him to be motivated as he enters a pivotal contract year. Now fully recovered from his 2020 bicep tear, with free agent dollars lurking, Jones is primed for a bounce back season. Combine that with the return of Markus Golden for a full season and the Cardinal pass rush should continue to ascend amongst the NFL elite.

With a secondary that has all sorts of question marks, the best medicine is a dominating defensive front that can seemingly take over games each and every Sunday.

  1. Key contributions from rookie class

In the desert, while other franchises find immediate contributors via the draft, fans have  long been conditioned to wait out the development of Cardinal rookies. High picks such as D.J. Humphries, Haason Reddick and Isaiah Simmons were all but redshirted during their rookie campaigns.

For the Cardinals to taste postseason success this season, the large majority of their rookie class will need to carry their weight. Thankfully, unlike most Arizona draft classes, the 2021 crop of  rookies appear to be up for the challenge.

The tone was likely set back on draft weekend, when GM Steve Keim all but anointed first rounder Zaven Collins an immediate starter at linebacker. That decision, while brash, appears to be in the best interest of the team. Collins had a very nice spring anchoring Arizona’s front seven while routinely calling the Cardinal defense. 

His physical style of play is a welcomed one, as this former Tulsa standout should rack up gaudy stats assuming he plays 90% of the snaps.

Then there’s second round standout Rondale Moore, an undersized receiver from the University of Purdue who hasn’t played a full season of football since 2018. As a redshirt freshman, however, the former Boilermaker piled up numerous accolades including First Team All American honors.

His arrival in the desert has been a significant one thus far, as the 49th pick has quickly solidified himself as a capable receiving option for a team suddenly loaded with talent at the position. Moore’s ability to produce YAC in conjunction with his knack to find open space in opposing secondaries will be on full display this season.

Last but certainly not least is fourth round rookie corner Marco Wilson, whom the team wisely traded a future pick to move up and acquire. The former Florida Gator has put together the most promising training camp from a Cardinal rookie corner since Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie back in 2008. 

Wilson netted the highest ProFootballFocus grade of any Arizona rookie for the preseason (85.9) while running almost exclusively with the first team defense. While his physical gifts are evident, what’s perhaps even more promising is that Wilson has been seen staying late (alongside fellow rookie Tay Gowan) working with DBs coach Marcus Robertson.

With the news that presumed CB1 Malcolm Butler has opted to retire from football, the urgency grows for this former SEC stand out to solidify himself amongst a talented but largely unproven Cardinal secondary.

  1. A.J. Green returns to form

It’s no secret that, following the end of the 2020 season, the Cardinals were going to prioritize finding an outside complement at receiver for All Pro DeAndre Hopkins.

What was a surprise, however, was the route that Cardinal General Manager Steve Keim opted to take. With a plethora of names available, including the likes of Kenny Gollady, Emmanuel Sanders, Marvin Jones as well as Hopkins old running mate Will Fuller, Keim and company pivoted from convention thinking.

Enter A.J. Green

A move that was largely met with criticism could end up being one of the more impactful additions of the offseason.  Following a three-year run of futility in Cincinnati, Green arrived in the desert rejuvenated and ready to produce.

He put together one of the more impressive training camps of any singular Cardinal while immediately gelling with the likes of Kyler Murray and the aforementioned Hopkins. 

Green’s presence, specifically in the immediate passing game, cannot be overstated. While he likely no longer possesses his trademark elite speed, his size and ability to track the ball at the highest point remain. With the departure of safety net Dan Arnold, expect Green to feast over the middle of the field while benefiting from single coverage thanks to the presence of Hopkins.

The Arizona Cardinals do not need peak A.J. Green to be successful, rather only to provide an alternative to what was too often backyard football in 2020.

  1. Kliff Kingsbury proves he belongs amongst NFC West elite

In a division that sports three separate head coaches who have all secured Super Bowl berths for their respective  teams, Kliff Kingsbury remains a black sheep.

While certainly not a failure as a head coach, his expected development has been forcibly expedited thanks to the ever-mounting pressure to win in the vaunted NFC West. 

After beginning the 2020 season 2-0 in division, Kliff’s Cardinals entered a tailspin while subsequently losing their final four NFC West matchups.

Through two seasons as Cardinal head coach, Kingsbury is a marginal 3-9 against the NFC West. This unnerving trend must change if the Arizona Cardinals hope to have any shot at the playoffs this season.

He must fend off a retooled San Francisco 49er team that will undoubtedly have a liability at quarterback, while also pushing back on a Seahawk organization who has missed the postseason only once since 2012.

Lastly Kingsbury must find a way to at least split with his close friend and mentor Sean McVay; something no Cardinal head coach has been able to accomplish.

If the National Football League is where the big boys play, then the NFC West is where the football gods compete. Fair or not, this is the standard Kingsbury is held to, and he has to live up to it otherwise the team will be looking for their fourth head coach in six years.

  1. Kyler Murray is Kyler Murray

Upon retrospect, the 2020 Arizona Cardinals were somewhat of a flawed team. Despite a plethora of talent, the team was far too inconsistent from beginning to end. Flashes of brilliance would coincide with head scratching performances that added up to an average record of 8-8.

What lived up to the billing, however, was the continued maturation of young quarterback Kyler Murray. For many Sundays, similar to his rookie season, Murray was the best player on the Cardinals. 

His heroics against the likes of San Francisco, Seattle and Buffalo were all-worldly, as the former Rookie of the Year and now Pro Bowl representative put together the best statistical season for any Cardinal quarterback in recent memory.

In each of his first two seasons, Murray has consistently improved upon every possible passing statistic while also providing eye-popping production as a runner.

His 37 total touchdowns alongside nearly 4800 yards of total offense is something to be celebrated. Production like this has been all but foreign to Arizona football, thanks to the likes of Max Hall, Derek Anderson and Kevin Kolb.


While his passing numbers may fluctuate and his rushing totals may dip, expect Murray to continue to improve upon a craft he’s already damn near mastered.

If the Cardinals want to contend for a postseason berth, Kyler Murray needs to be himself. 

As we saw in 2020, that was plenty good enough on most Sundays.

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