TEMPE, Ariz. -- Here's a surprise: The Arizona Cardinals play in the toughest division in football.
Here's another surprise: Three of my top five games to watch this season are against NFC West teams.
The Cardinals play the eighth-hardest schedule, according to ESPN Stats & Information, which includes a swing through the NFC East but their most important games will be against the West. Those matchups, at least four of them, will be barometers for Arizona, to see how far the Cardinals have come since 2013.
Arizona came within a game of making the postseason last year despite finishing third in the West with a 2-4 record. If the Cardinals want to make the progress they expect in 2014, they need to win more games against the St. Louis Rams, San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks.
With that being said, here are five Cardinals games to watch in 2014:
Week 1 vs. San Diego (Monday): There isn't a bigger way to kick off the season than on "Monday Night Football." After finishing 2013 on a strong note and all the talk this offseason about making strides to become a playoff contender in 2014, the Cards' first opportunity to show the league they're for real is on a national stage. But Arizona can't succumb to history. The Cardinals are 6-15-1 on "Monday Night Football" and just 1-8 since they moved to Arizona in 1988. Awaiting Arizona will be Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers, a formidable challenge for the Cards' defense. He'll test the secondary, especially cornerback Antonio Cromartie, who'll be facing the team that drafted him. And Jared Veldheer will face his first battle as a Cardinal when he blocks against linebacker Dwight Freeney.
Week 3 vs. San Francisco: If the Cardinals want to see just how far they've come since 2013, here's their first opportunity. They lost to the 49ers twice last season even though both games were very winnable. Arizona will see if its new plan to stop tight ends will work against Vernon Davis and the Cards' offensive line will have its first real all-around test. This will also be Arizona's first chance to see what life is like without Karlos Dansby, who was a major contributor against mobile quarterbacks last season. But what's most important about this game is that the Cardinals can send a message to the West. It'll be their last division game for seven weeks so a big win can marinate not just with the Niners but with the Rams and Seahawks, as well.
Week 5 at Denver: This isn't on the list because of the reunion between Cardinals coach Bruce Arians and his former protégé Peyton Manning. It's on the list because Manning, despite his diminished arm strength, is a master at picking apart secondaries and he'll be able to expose any weaknesses in the Cardinals' defense. In the end, that could be a blessing in disguise with 12 weeks left to fix them. And the Cardinals will be able to measure themselves against one of the best teams in the AFC, so if they make a run to the Super Bowl, they'll know how they stack up depending on Denver's season.
Week 12 at Seattle: Blood will be boiling when Arizona revisits the site of its biggest win of 2013 where it handed the eventual Super Bowl champs their only home loss of the past two seasons. The 12th man will want the Cardinals' wings clipped but Arizona will be motivated by facing the reigning champs for the first time in 2014. If the Cardinals can escape with a win, it could be a major benefit come playoff time. And by Nov. 23, the Cards will have had plenty of time to work out any kinks, similarly to last season's Week 16 games at Seattle, so one of the season's best matchups could be in store.
Week 15 at St. Louis (Thursday): December won't be all jingle bells and candy canes for the Cardinals. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Arizona has the second-hardest schedule in December. But this Thursday night game can be telling. The Cardinals will start a brutal final stretch against three NFC West teams on the road in a short week. If Arizona gets caught looking ahead to a home date with Seattle 10 days later, the Cards can be in for a long winter. This win against St. Louis will pace Arizona for the final three games. But, like with Monday nights, the Cards can't repeat history: They're 0-3 overall on Thursday nights.