When Sunday began, the Arizona Cardinals knew their playoff hopes rested on the team's ability to turn around an underwhelming season to date and reel off wins in five of the team's final six games.
After Sunday's blowout loss against the Atlanta Falcons, though, the Cardinals now know they cannot afford even one more loss if they want their goal of securing a playoff berth to remain realistic.
At 4-6-1, the Cardinals must win five games in five weeks to improve to 9-6-1 and force their way back into playoff contention. Even at 9-6-1 though, it's unclear whether Arizona would be able to climb into a position where it could secure the sixth seed in the NFC.
Ahead of Monday night's showdown between the Philadelphia Eagles and Green Bay Packers, the Cardinals currently rank as the 11th seed in the NFC. If Green Bay defeats Philadelphia, the Cardinals slide back to the 12th seed, as they would remain ahead of just the Carolina Panthers, Los Angeles Rams, Chicago Bears and San Francisco 49ers.
After 12 weeks of the NFL season, five NFC teams have already secured at least seven victories, but fortunately for Arizona, four of those teams are poised to win their divisions. That means that only the eight-win New York Giants are likely to reach the 10-win threshold, because no current seven-win teams are poised to secure wildcard spots. As such, with five games remaining for all but the Eagles and the Packers, many of the five or six-win teams in contention for a playoff berth would need to win four of their final five games to reach the 10-win threshold to eliminate the Cardinals, which is unlikely to happen.
At this point in the season, the Cardinals' 6-6 tie against the Seattle Seahawks in October is keeping Arizona alive in the playoff hunt, because a loss in that game would have put the Cardinals' record at 4-7 at this point in the season. In that case, if Arizona had seven losses and won five straight games to close the season, the playoff picture would still remain unclear because tiebreaker scenarios for multiple 9-7 teams would still be undetermined.
However, at 9-6-1, the Cardinals will have one fewer loss than other nine-win teams, unless Washington emerges from the current group of six-win teams to finish the year at 9-6-1. If that scenario were to unfold, however, and both the Cardinals and the Redskins finished 9-6-1, Arizona would hold the tiebreaker over Washington because for the Cardinals to reach the nine-win threshold, they must defeat the Redskins at home this Sunday.
With five weeks left to play, the New York Giants are the most likely NFC team to earn a wildcard bid. At 8-3 overall, it's unlikely the Giants will surpass the 10-1 Dallas Cowboys in the NFC East, but it is likely the Giants will win two of their final five games to finish with at least 10 regular season victories.
After the Giants, though, predicting the order of finish for the remaining NFC teams becomes difficult, and that's why mathematically, the Cardinals still have an outside shot at earning a bid. Will Washington, Tampa Bay or Minnesota win three of its final five games to end the season? Will the Eagles or Saints go on a run and win four of their final five games to hit nine wins? It will take time for all of this to play out, but the Cardinals have now put themselves in a position where the only scoreboard they'll be watching is their own, because one loss should rip the Cardinals out of the wildcard conversation.
Of course, the other path to the playoffs in the NFC for Arizona requires a Seattle collapse at the top of the division, but the possibility exists. The Seahawks' offense has struggled to protect Russell Wilson all season and looked lifeless during much of Sunday's loss in Tampa Bay. If Seattle wins just one of its final five games and Arizona wins four of its last five, including a win over Seattle, the Cardinals could end up sneaking away with the division crown.