At the beginning of the 2016 season, the Arizona Cardinals were bullish on their opportunity to return to the NFC Championship game and ultimately make a Super Bowl run.
As a franchise, Arizona has almost never encountered the type of expectations it did heading into 2016, but after a 13-3 season in 2015 and an offseason in which almost all of the team's key players returned, the Cardinals had a legitimate belief around their locker room that they would be the NFC team playing on the first weekend of February.
Of course, after a 7-8-1 regular season in which the Cardinals missed the playoffs, those plans never came to fruition. In fact, they didn't come close.
However, one player who began the season in the Cardinals' locker room will have the opportunity to earn a Super Bowl ring Sunday, and it's the player who could single-handedly force many Arizona fans to root for Atlanta this weekend.
Veteran wide receiver Michael Floyd was released late in the 2016 season following his arrest for Driving Under the Influence the evening immediately following a Cardinals' loss, and a few days later, Arizona cut ties with the free agent to be.
Within the week, the New England Patriots made the call to sign Floyd, and by the end of the regular season, the Cardinals' castaway amassed four receptions for 42 yards and a touchdown while helping the Patriots put the finishing touches on their ascension to the No. 1 seed in the AFC.
So far, Floyd only has one reception in the playoffs, and may not even be active during Sunday's Super Bowl, but after his fallout in Arizona, many Cardinals' fans would prefer to see the team with a former fan favorite earn a victory.
After signing early in the 2015 season with Arizona, veteran pass rusher Dwight Freeney finished the year leading the Cardinals in sacks, providing the team with a much-needed edge rushing presence. Freeney capped off his only season in Arizona with only eight tackles, but all of those tackles happened to be sacks.
Additionally, Freeney was a noted locker room leader, a veteran with previous Super Bowl experience who was tasked with ensuring some of the younger Cardinals' players kept their composure as the team entered uncharted waters late in the season and in the playoffs.
Though Arizona wasn't willing to bring Freeney back in 2016, instead pursuing former Patriots' rusher Chandler Jones, Freeney is still well-regarded by Cardinals' head coach Bruce Arians and was an excellent asset for the team during its 2015 run to the NFC Championship.
The other two former Cardinals playing in the Super Bowl are Falcons' linebacker Sean Witherspoon and Patriots' defensive tackle Alan Branch.
Like Floyd and Freeney, Witherspoon played with Arizona during Arians' tenure, playing in 14 games last season mostly as a special teams contributor. Witherspoon spent the first four seasons of his career with Atlanta before coming to Arizona for one season in 2015, but after failing to make much of an impact in his lone season with the Cardinals, Witherspoon returned to the Falcons in 2016.
Branch's days in Arizona are much more of a distant memory in his career, as the 32-year-old 10th year NFL veteran spent the first four seasons of his career with the Cardinals. This season, Branch has plugged the middle of the line of scrimmage as a nose tackle for the Patriots, securing 26 tackles and recording 1.5 sacks.
Over the past two seasons, Branch has started 30 games for New England, and has been a key cog in the Patriots' defensive operation.
During his time in Arizona, Branch started just three games in four seasons, never recording more than 27 tackles or 2.0 sacks in a single campaign. Today, he's developed into one of the strongest nose tackles in the NFL, and has an opportunity to earn his second Super Bowl ring.
With a pair of former Cardinals on each side of the field on Sunday, Arizona fans have an opportunity to relive some older memories of players who they once rooted for on a weekly basis.