After falling to 4-6-1 with a loss to the Atlanta Falcons two weeks ago, the Arizona Cardinals knew they had put themselves in a hole that might have been too deep to dig climb out.
Though the Cardinals began making progress with a 31-23 victory over Washington last weekend, the team fell back in the hole on Sunday afternoon in Miami and may not have another path left to escape.
At 5-7-1, head coach Bruce Arians' Cardinals squad is now the 10th seed in the NFC, and may have a better chance of earning a top-10 draft pick than it does at earning a playoff berth.
After last weekend's win over Washington, a path to the playoffs through securing a wildcard berth appeared most feasible for Arizona, but after Sunday's loss in Miami, the Cardinals' best chance at earning a playoff berth is now dependent on winning the NFC West, which is no small task at this point in the year.
On Sunday evening, the Seattle Seahawks suffered their second loss in three weeks, as quarterback Russell Wilson suffered through the worst performance of his professional career in a 38-10 defeat against Green Bay. A win by Seattle on Sunday would have clinched the NFC West for the Seahawks, but now, Pete Carroll's team will have to wait at least one more week to sew up the division.
At 8-4-1, Seattle needs just one win or one Cardinals loss over the final three weeks of the season to clinch the NFC West, and fortunately for the Seahawks, all three of their remaining games come against West division opponents.
With the 4-9 Rams next on the docket at home, Seattle has an excellent opportunity to clinch the division on Sunday. However, if the Seahawks fall next weekend and wind up losing to a hungry Cardinals' team at home on Christmas Eve, Seattle can still put the division on ice with a win over San Francisco, a loser of 12 straight games, on New Year's Day.
For Arizona to win the NFC West, the Cardinals must defeat New Orleans next Sunday, Seattle on Christmas Eve and Los Angeles on New Year's day and have the Seahawks lose three games in succession. Though the odds of the dominoes falling in the exact manner the Cardinals need to keep their hopes of winning the division are highly unlikely, Arizona may be completely out of luck in the NFC wildcard race.
Because the New York Giants defeated the Dallas Cowboys Sunday evening, the 9-4 Giants are now assured to remain ahead of the Cardinals in the standings at the end of the regular season, meaning Arizona's lone hope of reaching the playoffs via a wildcard berth would require the Cardinals to win out and earn the sixth seed.
However, four teams currently have much greater odds of earning the final berth in the NFC, including an upstart Tampa Bay team that has now won five straight games.
At 8-5, the Buccaneers currently reside in the sixth spot in the NFC playoff picture, and one more win for Tampa Bay likely precludes Arizona from remaining in contention. Still, because Tampa Bay can overtake Atlanta in the NFC East, one Buccaneers win wouldn't eliminate Arizona from the playoff hunt.
If the Falcons lose their remaining three games and the Cardinals win their remaining three games, Arizona would finish at 8-7-1 and the Falcons would finish at 8-8, meaning the Cardinals would push ahead of a team it lost to 38-19 in the standings.
However, there are still other teams clouding the picture that remain more than a full game ahead of the Cardinals with three games left to play. The 7-5-1 Redskins, the 7-6 Vikings and the 7-6 Packers all have better odds of finishing with nine wins than the Cardinals do with eight wins, making the path to the playoffs through a wildcard berth extremely unlikely for Arizona.
As such, the Cardinals' best odds of making the playoffs now run through the NFC West, where Arizona needs to do its best to take care of business while receiving significant help from Seattle.