How the Cardinals-Falcons matchup impacts NFC playoff picture

The Cardinals' season hinges on the team's ability to go on the road and defeat a first place Atlanta Falcons squad with a dynamic offense.

With six games left to play in the regular season, the Arizona Cardinals are three games out of first place in the NFC West and still have to travel to Seattle to take on the first place Seahawks.

While that game could certainly swing momentum in the Cardinals' favor in the race for the NFC West, it's highly unlikely Arizona earns a playoff berth thanks to a division title.

Seattle still has matchups with Tampa Bay, Los Angeles and San Francisco on the horizon, and it's hard to imagine the hottest team outside of Dallas losing four of its final six games. 

With that being said, every game the Arizona Cardinals play takes on added importance, because the Cardinals have reached the point where they must win five of six to close the season in order to jump squarely into the playoff picture.

In some seasons, a wildcard berth is possible by winning eight games, but because of the hyper-competitive nature of the NFC, and specifically the NFC East, this year, it appears as though the magic number for earning a playoff berth in the NFC will be nine wins.

How's that missed field goal in overtime against Seattle looking right now? Or the botched snap on the opening weekend of the season against New England? The margin of error is small in the NFL, and it's quite possible special teams mistakes will end up costing the Cardinals a playoff bid.

That's why games like this Sunday's in Atlanta are so critical for Arizona. The Cardinals have struggled in the first quarter of games in the central and eastern time zones this season, and the Falcons have the type of big-play potential that could thwart Arizona's hopes at earning a victory right out of the gate.

At 6-4, Atlanta also has plenty to play for, because the Falcons lead the NFC South by just a single game and are still in contention for an opening round bye if they can inch past seven-win teams like New York and Seattle in the season's closing weeks.

So what would happen if the Cardinals dropped their second straight contest and fell two games below .500 on the season?

Essentially, Arizona would have to win out and beat teams like the Dolphins, Redskins and Seahawks who are all still battling for playoff positioning and should be doing so deep into the season.

If the Cardinals were to lose to Atlanta, win out and finish 9-6-1, there's still the possibility two NFC runner-ups could finish with 10 wins (e.g. the seven-win Giants or six-win Lions,) but Arizona would set itself up to have a tiebreaker ahead of all of the other nine-win teams in the NFL because it would have six losses and one tie as opposed to seven losses. 

If the Cardinals were to beat Atlanta, though, it would make a playoff push much more reasonable considering Arizona would be able to lose one of its final five games to get to nine wins instead of having to win five in a row.

Ultimately, the loss against Minnesota proved to be a gigantic setback for Arizona, because it leaves the Cardinals with little room for error moving forward. Had the Cardinals defeated the Vikings, a 5-4-1 team would have remained in realistic contention for a division title while still having the resume to make a push for a wildcard berth.

Instead, though, Arizona is now the 10th seed in the NFC playoff picture, and a loss on Sunday threatens to push the Cardinals as low as the 13th seed if the Packers and Panthers take care of business. While the Cardinals would remain ahead of the loser of the Rams-Saints matchup, Arizona would still fall behind one of those teams if it lost Sunday, and at that point, the Cardinals would need to overcome nearly half the NFC just to make it back into contention for a playoff bid.

Simply put, the Cardinals have a small amount of room for error, but that room is getting narrower and narrower as the team's losses mount. 

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