When is a meaningless football game extraordinarily meaningful?
When a team has lost four of its last five games.
When it's been outscored 82-21 the previous two weeks.
When it looked like a plane that was heading into the side of a mountain.
Sure, the Cardinals' 34-21 victory over the Seattle Seahawks on Sunday didn't shed a light on their playoff chops. Seattle isn't Minnesota, New England or, more importantly, the Atlanta Falcons.
But consider the alternative. A loss would have ground the Cardinals' self-esteem into dust just six days before hosting their first playoff game in 51 years.
"After the last few games we played, we really needed a positive," said defensive end Antonio Smith, who admitted that the team's confidence had plummeted faster than the stock market. "That's why I think this was our most important game of the year."
The Cardinals weren't just wounded by their play the last month. They felt stung by criticism so soon after clinching the NFC West title. Coach Ken Whisenhunt went out of his way at the postgame press conference to chide those (here!) who had predicted that the Cardinals would finish with a losing record.
To be fair, Arizona should be commended for its 9-7 record and division title. Those aren't regular occurrences around here.
As running back Edgerrin James noted, "We have one of the 12 balls in the lottery machine." That alone makes this season a success.
But it became apparent weeks ago that the Cardinals were going to win the NFC West. What we wondered then - and what we still wonder - is whether they can make a deep run in the playoffs.
"Do we have the potential? Do we have the ability? We do," James said.
They also have the ability to fall flat on their face. It's anybody guess as to which team will show up Saturday. Arizona's first-half performance against the Seahawks certainly wasn't cause for optimism. It was 14-14 at halftime, and Seattle had 226 yards of total offense. Fans booed the Cardinals on four separate occasions and only stopped because they wanted to get in line at the concession stand.
But the Seahawks only managed 104 yards in the final two quarters, quarterback Kurt Warner found his rhythm, finishing with 263 yards passing and four touchdowns (his most since 2001), and the boos turned into cheers.
Did Arizona finally find the light switch? Or was it simply fortunate to be playing Seattle, which finished 4-12 and for some inexplicable reason decided not to double-team Larry Fitzgerald (five catches, 130 yards, two touchdowns)?
"If we play like we did today for three quarters, then I think we can go far, because we played pretty good football from that point," Whisenhunt said.
Warner talked at length about the Cardinals' energy level - "when we give anything and we come out with energy and we play the top of our game, we can beat anybody" - but he also seemed to question the team's maturity level in terms of understanding the commitment needed to win in the postseason.
"The bottom line is, are we going to have guys that are committed to that?" he said. "If we do, who knows. We could be playing four more weeks."
OK, let's not get ahead of ourselves here. The Cardinals in the Super Bowl? What kind of bizarro world would we be living in?
But an opportunity awaits. For the first time in a decade, the talk isn't of misery, but anticipation.
Can the Cardinals stop Falcons running backs Michael Turner and Jerious Norwood?
Does James have another 100-yard game in him?
Who will win the quarterback duel: the aging gunslinger (Warner) or the young gun (Matt Ryan)?
"It's a chance of a lifetime," Warner said.
Whether Arizona spins that opportunity into gold, who knows.
But one thing is certain:
As long as it doesn't snow, the Cardinals have a shot.