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Preseason power rankings: No. 16

Only once this decade, the team that lost the Super Bowl made it back to the playoffs the next season.

Several factors explain this dynamic.

First, the Super Bowl loser plays a longer season than all but one other team, reducing the time for rest and re-energizing.

Second, the staff of the Super Bowl loser likely lapses into a mini-funk after becoming the highest-profile failure in pro football. And this possibly undermines the important work that needs to be done immediately after the Super Bowl, from evaluating potential draft picks to negotiating contracts with impending free agents to determining which free agents will be targeted only a few weeks after the final gun sounds in the final game of the year.

Third, the Super Bowl loser becomes a target for other franchises who need players and coaches.

Fourth, the Super Bowl loser acquires a bull’s-eye on its back in the next regular season, with other teams geeked up about the possibility of helping to bring the No. 2 franchise from the prior season back down into the muck with the rest of the also-rans.

And, in the case of the 2008 Arizona Cardinals, who lost Super Bowl XLIII to the Steelers in particularly heartbreaking fashion, they aren’t nearly as good as their postseason run suggests.

Before knocking off the Falcons, Panthers, and Eagles in successive weeks, the Cards were being called the worst team ever to qualify for the playoffs. And for good reason. During a regular season spent in the subpar NFC West, the Cardinals won nine games and lost seven, giving up more than 44 points on average in five of the losses. And they didn’t win a road game beyond the confines of their division.

Indeed, a case easily can be made that, if Plaxico Burress hadn’t blown a hole through his leg in late November, the Giants never would have stumbled against the Eagles in the divisional round -- and the Cardinals never could have stayed within two touchdowns of New York at Giants Stadium in the middle of January.

This year, it won’t get any easier. Two of the other three teams in the NFC West, Seattle and San Fran, are improved, and the rest of the schedule features games against the teams of the AFC South and the NFC North, along with contests against the champs of the NFC East (Giants) and NFC South (Panthers).

Meanwhile, the offensive and defensive coordinators are gone, along with several other assistant coaches. Though the roster wasn’t heavily raided via free agency, it wasn’t dramatically improved, either.

The offensive line hasn’t gotten much better, which suggests that the running attack won’t take much heat off a high-end passing game.

The defense feels like it’s the same, too. And that’s not a good sign, given that other teams with which the Cards are competing took steps to improve.

On top of everything else, aging quarterback Kurt Warner has been overpaid to stick around, and receiver Anquan Boldin still hasn’t gotten the new deal he has wanted for more than a year.

So despite last year’s Super Bowl appearance, the Cardinals are a middle of the pack team at best. And that’s why we’ve put them squarely in the middle of the pack.

Key player: Larry Fitzgerald. Already the best receiver in the game, Fitzgerald will need to push himself even higher in order to keep the rest of the offense rolling.

Rookie to watch: Beanie Wells. He’ll be asked to get the most he can out of whatever blocking the Cardinals can provide. But first he’ll have to show that he can stay healthy.

Best veteran acquisition: Anthony Becht. An underrated force in the blocking scheme, Becht could help open holes for Wells and Tim Hightower.

Key game: Week Two, at Jacksonville. If the Cards truly are for real, they’ll show early on that they can take care of business while playing on the road against a team not in their division, and presumably not in their class. Stumbling against the Jags will put even more pressure on the Cardinals for their Week Three prime-time contest against the Colts.