Another… Thursday, another rabbit hole to explore. This one might be a day late, but it's a good one. We are back to the football well for another juicy topic. Join me, won’t you?
This page feels relevant considering the current version of the Arizona Cardinals are the last undefeated team in the NFL and have an 81.7% chance to make the postseason according to Football Outsiders. A look at their history in the playoffs might reveal something about their fate this season.
The Cardinals franchise has been around for 102 seasons, dating back to 1920. In that time, they have also been the Chicago Cardinals, the St. Louis Cardinals (named as such just to mess with people I assume), and the Phoenix Cardinals. In 102 seasons, they have earned a playoff berth just 10 times. This is tied for 4th worst among active NFL teams, only beating out the Panthers (8 appearances in 27 seasons), the Jaguars (7 in 20), and (6 in 27). They are tied with the Buccaneers who have been around for 56 fewer seasons. Even the division rival Seahawks have 18 appearances in 46 season. The Cardinals are utterly inept at even reaching the postseason.
Once in the postseason, the Cardinals fair a bit better. They have a 7-9 all-time record, which ranks 22nd in win percentage of active teams. And while they have played the 3rd fewest playoffs games, when they are involved, the games are absolute gems. All of these games, regardless of the winner or loser are some of the most entertaining games in NFL history.
We’ll start at the oldest playoff games, back to back NFL Championship games in 1947 and 1948. Both games were matchups against the Philadelphia Eagles. The Cardinals would win the first matchup, also their first ever playoff game, and it would have been wild to see. A 28-21 finals score seems normal enough, but of the 7 touchdowns scored, 5 of them were on 40+ yard plays. The Cardinals had three 70+ yard TDs. Elmer Angsman had two different 70 yard rush scores. Charley Trippi had a 44 yard rush and added a 75 yard punt return score. This was an explosive game.
The 2nd title bout between these teams was… slightly less exciting. The 1948 Championship ended in a 7-0 Eagles win. The Cardinals totaled 131 yards over the entire game, fewer than Angsman had on his two touchdown runs a year earlier. The passing game awful as the team went 3 of 11 for 35 yards and an interception. This was still better than the Eagles who went 2 of 12 for 7 yards and 2 interceptions. The sole score of the game came in the 4th quarter on a 5 yard rush from Eagles’ All-Pro halfback Steve Van Buren. The Cardinals did not have it this game and failed to capture 2 titles in a row, preventing a possible dynasty. While this offense was anemic even by 1948 standards, it’s not the worst offensive performance for the Cardinals in the playoffs. But we’ll get to that soon.
After two championship games in a row, the Cardinals fanbase would have to wait 26 years to see their beloved team return to the playoffs in any fashion. Then, in 1974 and 1975, they would once again reach the second season. Both years would end in round 1 losses, and would be followed by another 7 year drought. The 1982 season would bring a 4th straight playoff loss and usher in a miserable 16 year streak of missing the postseason. It wasn’t until 1998 that the Cardinals would finally record their 2nd playoff win, 51 years after the 1st one. That win was followed by a blowout loss in round 2 and another 10 years of futility. These were not fun times for the Cardinals. In the 5 postseason games they played between 1974 and 1998, they were outscored 154 to 94.
Then, in 2008, 10 years since their last appearance, it all seemed to come together. That season, the Arizona Cardinals won a mediocre NFC West with a 9-7 record that was powered by a high octane offense. The top 5 unit had HOFer Kurt Warner slinging the ball to three 1,000 yard receivers: Larry Fitzgerald, Anquan Boldin, and Steve Breaston. In the playoffs, they put up numbers, scoring 95 points in 3 games on their way to the very first Super Bowl berth in franchise history. Super Bowl XLIII versus the Pittsburgh Steelers is one of the most electric games of all-time, even being ranked as the #1 Super Bowl of All-Time by NFL Films. Warner was doing his usual thing, but an incredible Steelers defense kept the game close. With the Cardinals trailing 10-7, Warner had the ball on the 1 yard line and just 18 seconds left in the 1st half. Instead of punching it in, on the last play of the half, Warner threw an interception to James Harrison who took it for a Super Bowl record 100 yard touchdown return. In the 2nd half, the Steelers added a field goal to put the Cardinals in a 20-7 hole. But that offense couldn’t be kept down for long. Larry Fitzgerald woke up and started to carve up the elite defense of Pittsburgh. He scored his first touchdown 7:33 remaining in the 4th quarter. The Arizona defense would do their part to add a safety and get the ball back with 3 minutes to go. 22 seconds later, Larry would get loose for a 64 yard touchdown, his 7th of the playoffs (breaking Jerry Rice’s record for a single postseason). The score was 23-20 Cardinals, and 2:30 remaining. The Steelers would drive the length of the field and Ben Roethlisberger threw an amazing game-winning touchdown over three Cardinals defenders to Super Bowl MVP Santonio Holmes, who somehow toe-tapped the corner of the endzone.
How did the Arizona Cardinals follow up that heartbreak? By winning their division and returning to the playoffs, earning a date with the Green Bay Packers and a hotshot young quarterback named Aaron Rodgers. The 2009 Wildcard game between the Packers and the Cardinals still holds the record for highest scoring playoff game in NFL history. The game started hot, with the Cardinals scoring 2 touchdowns in the first 6 minutes of action following 2 turnovers by the Packers offense. Things were looking grim for Green Bay after the 1st quarter. They were down 17-0 and had amassed a pathetic 13 net yards while Warner's offense looked like it couldn't miss. A missed field goal by Mason Crosby early in the 2nd looked like it might doom them. Arizona was on their way to another score when Warner hit Fitzgerald at the Green Bay 20, but Charles Woodson was able to force a fumbled that got recovered by rookie Clay Matthews. Aaron Rodgers took it upon himself to bring the ball into the endzone and complete the first of 8 straight scoring drives in the game. A team scored on 11 of the next 12 drives as the offenses hit overdrive. Rodgers accounted for 5 touchdowns (4 passing, 1 rushing) and Warner threw for 5 of his own (2 to Larry, 2 to Early Doucet). After being down 21 points in the 3rd quarter, the Packers roared back to tie the game at 45 all, thanks in part to a successful surprise onside kick. Arizona had a chance to win in regulation, but kicker Neil Rackers missed a chip shot from 34 yards out and the game went to OT. Rodgers got the ball to start the extra period, but on 3rd and 6, he was strip sacked by Michael Adams. The fumble was recovered by Arizona and returned for the walk-off defensive score. Arizona has a knack for being part of absolute chaos in the playoffs. This particular game ended up going their way after they choked away a 21 point lead and missed the kick to win. The next week, Arizona would get demolished by the New Orleans Saints. They allowed another 45 points, but were unable to keep pace this time.
Once again, the Cardinals faithful would have to wait many years to get back into the playoffs. This time it was a relatively short 5 years. The 2014 Cardinals went 11-5 to claim the first wildcard spot, just behind the 12-4 Seahawks for the division. This was a bit of luck though, as they got to face the 7-9-1 Carolina Panther, just the 2nd team in NFL history to make the playoffs with a sub-.500 record over a full season. Unfortunately, Arizona had lost their 2 top quarterbacks that season (Carson Palmer and Drew Stanton) and instead had to rely on the arm of Ryan Lindley. The Panther won 27-16, but that score belies how truly incompetent the Arizona offense was. Led by Lindley, the offense gained just 78 total yards in the entire game, the fewest in any postseason game ever. Lindley attempted 28 passes and managed just 82 passing yards while getting sacked for 31 yards. The ground game was even worse, falling forward for 27 yards on 15 attempts (compared to 188 by Carolina). Taking out end of quarter drives, Arizona had 14 possessions. They punted 9 times, including 7 three and out drives. The only reason they were even able to score was thanks to Carolina's generosity. The Panthers muffed a punt and a Cam Newton interception was returned 50 yards, setting up 2 touchdowns already deep in Carolina territory. The final 2 points for Arizona came from an intentional safety by the Panthers punter at the end of the game. It's one of the worst offensive performances of all time in the playoffs.
The final and most recent postseason appearance by the Cardinals happened the very next year in 2015, and they would get another instant classic overtime game against the Green Bay Packers and Aaron Rodgers. This time, the division winning 13-3 Cardinals were led by the ageless Larry Fitzgerald, David Johnson in his prime, and MVP candidate Carson Palmer. They were ready for their moment to finally shine. It was a huge back and forth battle, with far more defense being played this time around. Larry ended the game with 176 yards and touchdown while Michael Floyd caught 3 passes for 2 touchdowns. On the other side, having lost Jordy Nelson for the season and with Randall Cobb going down early in the game, Rodgers was left throwing to Packers legends like Jeff Janis, Jared Abbrederis, and Richard Rodgers. This game came to the wire, with the Cardinals ahead 20-13 at the 2 minute warning and the Packers receiving the ball at their own 14. Needing a touchdown to stay alive, they were looking the throw deep. A sack by Dwight Freeney pushed them by back to their own 4 yard line. On 4th and 20, standing in his own endzone, Aaron Rodgers completed a 60 yard pass to Jeff Janis against all odds. Two incomplete passes and an offensive penalty later, the Packers were left with 5 seconds and 41 yards to go. On that final play, Rodgers completed another deep ball to Jeff Janis that nearly made Cris Collinsworth pass out from excitement. Janis tied the game and caught 101 yards worth of passes on that drive. But the Cardinals weren't done. They received the ball to start OT and Larry Fitzgerald decided to end the game himself. On the first play of overtime, he took a short pass on the left side 75 yards all the way to the 5 yard line. A few plays later, he scored the walk-off touchdown and killed the Packers’ dream of one of the most improbable comebacks ever. Larry wouldn't be able to carry the team further though, as the next round they ran into Cam Newton and the Panther again, this time in full MVP form. The Cardinals got blasted, 49-15, and haven't been back to the postseason since.
Honestly, any one of these games could pack a full newsletter of full. They may not make it often, but the Cardinals in the playoffs make an impact no matter what. Hopefully they get there this season and provide another mystical game that breaks some ridiculous record.
And that’s the story of the Arizona Cardinals Playoff History.
Keep Sports Fun.
Twitter - @ColinRingwood12