The Cleveland Browns are having a terrible season. They are 0-11, and I'm not sure I see a win left on their schedule (NYG, CIN, at BUF, SD, at PIT). WhatIfSports gives the Browns a 16.7 percent chance of becoming the fifth team in NFL history -- and the first since the 2008 Lions -- to put together a winless season, and those odds strike me as a little high. It's just a nightmare out there, with quarterbacks getting knocked around left and right, to the point that even Browns future Hall of Fame lineman Joe Thomas feels bad for them. Their loss Sunday officially eliminated them from the playoffs, the earliest a team has been eliminated in more than a decade. The season is so dreary that the message board posters are talking about politics to keep their mind off their team, the surest sign of a fanbase at the end of its tether.
But I still don't think the Browns are having a worse year than the Arizona Cardinals are.
This was supposed to be the season for the Cardinals, and if you don't believe me, listen to the team itself.
"It's great, because people are right; we are pretty good," Arizona quarterback Carson Palmer said before the season started.
"You earned the right to be considered the best," Calais Campbell said. "It's just a testament to what we've done the last three years."
But if anyone had the swagger of a Super Bowl champion, it was coach Bruce Arians. Fresh off his star turn on Amazon's "Hard Knocks"-esqe series "All or Nothing" -- in which Arians cursed and quipped his way to cultural ubiquity -- Arians was the new breed of football coach straight from central casting. He wore Kangols, he hugged his players right after screaming in their faces, he gave rousing speeches, he refused to compromise, he had a TV personality's gift for soundbites, he made players want to run through a wall for him. He was a newer, fresher, more fun Bill Belichick, the lunatic football freak you wanted to cheer for. When you close your eyes and imagine your ideal football coach, this is what he looks like.
That was Arians' big speech after the Cardinals' faceplant in the NFC Championship Game last season, and it was clearly seen -- not just by the Cardinals, but by the rest of the NFL -- as a mission statement for 2016: This is our year. The team walked the red carpet for "All or Nothing," traded for Chandler Jones, spoke of running back David Johnson being a potential Hall of Famer and boasted openly of their Super Bowl chances. When asked about his expectations for the year, Arians brayed, "Win the Super Bowl. Nothing else will be acceptable."
Few disagreed with him. Sports Illustrated picked the Cardinals as their Super Bowl winner. NFL.com and ESPN both had them second in their preseason power rankings. Coming off the best season in their history, they were showcased on Sunday Night Football in Week 1, against those hated New England Patriots, and they were heavy favorites. It was all lined up for them.
But then they lost that opener. They didn't play terribly, though Palmer seemed to have carried over some of his playoff jitters. You could write the loss off as a kicker problem: Chandler Catanzaro missed a gimme game-winner as time expired. Tough break, but it happens, and when the Cardinals wiped out the Buccaneers in Week 2, all seemed back to normal.
All was not back to normal. They were sloppy and careless in a Week 3 loss to a Buffalo Bills team that seemed, heading in, like they were ready to send Rex Ryan packing. Then it fell apart in Week 4, a quintessential 2016 Cardinals home loss to the L.A. Rams, a game they mostly dominated but lost because of a unique combination of special teams mistakes, dumb penalties and unfortunate circumstance. Like many of their losses this year, they appeared to be the better team but gave up a killer kick return at the exact wrong time. (They also had five turnovers in that game.) Arians' tone changed. "We're not panicking," he said.
He should have. Wins over the sad San Francisco 49ers and New York Jets brought back the false confidence, which was squelched quickly with that ugly 6-6 tie to the Seattle Seahawks on Oct. 23 and a terrible loss to an also-disappointing Panthers team a week later that went down roughly similar to last season's NFC Championship game. They needed a last-second field goal to beat San Francisco last week, setting them up for a massive game against reeling Minnesota to get their season back on track.
And it was just like the rest of them. The Cardinals looked like the better team … but still found a way to lose. This time, it was a 100-yard pick-six at the end of the first half, followed immediately by a 104-yard kickoff return by Corderelle Patterson to start the second, to wipe out perhaps Palmer's best game of the season. Another special teams mistake in the closing minutes put the Cardinals far too deep into their own territory to make a run, and a game that the Cardinals were up for and played hard enough to win had fallen apart and gotten away from them. Again. Arians' quote this time: "The season is not done."
It sure feels that way. The Cards are two full games behind Washington for the final playoff spot, with three teams in between them. (One of which, Minnesota, the Cardinals just lost to.) Four of their final six games are on the road, three of which (Atlanta, Miami and Seattle) are against teams with winning records. FiveThirtyEight gives them only a 12 percent chance of making the playoffs, and frankly, that seems high.
This is a team that has carried itself like a Super Bowl contender all season, despite all available evidence. Every loss is treated as an aberration; every mistake attributable to a freak occurrence unlikely to be repeated. "The goal is still a Super Bowl," Arians said just last week. But the problem with Arians' big talk is that when you lose, you can't back off of it. The Cardinals' insistence that they are a dominant team just waiting to break out has kept them from solving the smaller problems that stand in their way. The special teams miscues, the mental lapses, the occasional game mismanagement. The insistence of greatness is beginning to look like the illusion of infallibility. It looks like arrogance.
Realistically, the Cardinals need to win every game the rest of the season just to sneak into a No. 6 seed. And this does not look like a team that can win every game. This looks like a team that'll be lucky to make it to .500.
A season that began with "[We] earned the right to be considered the best" is likely to end short of the playoffs, with a suddenly aging team that was built to win this year and a quarterback who will be 37 years old. The Super Bowl window was supposed to be open this year. Now you wonder if the Cardinals moment, such as it was, has already passed. All or nothing, indeed.
Which begs the question: What's worse? Is it worse to be a fan of the Browns, a team whose fans knew it would be bad heading into this season and had (mostly) accepted that this was going to be a long-term project? That this year would be lost in order to help build for future years? There were no expectations for this year: All told, the Browns losing means the plan is going exactly as it is supposed to.
Or is it worse to be a fan of the Cardinals? To be told that your team expects to win the Super Bowl, that "we know we're good," to see all that talent on the field every week but have it collapse in a series of silly mistakes and sloppy play? Is it better to know it's going to be bad and take mild pleasures in small measures, or to have every week be an exercise in frustration, in thwarted opportunity? The Browns are a dull ache; the Cardinals a regularly throbbing pang. Arizona fans got insanely excited for this year. That was our first mistake.