To the surprise of many, including myself, the Arizona Cardinals appear to be legitimate contenders in the NFC. Sure, they’ve excited their fan base early in the season in years past only to fade down the stretch. However, something about this Cardinals team feels different—at least from the outset of the season. Maybe head coach Kliff Kingsbury saw the odds of him being fired this season. Maybe both he and general manager Steve Keim knew the seriousness of the “playoffs or else” mandate from ownership. Maybe it was the defensive staff not getting contract extensions last season. In all likelihood, all of these have contributed to the Cardinals’ early success.
In years past, Arizona would lose close games with a turnover, coaching gaffe, or another blunder. These are games they are now winning.
Just a week ago, media pundits lauded Matthew Stafford’s fit in Sean McVay’s offense, proclaiming that the Rams had the best offense in the NFL. Some in the media even doubled down proclaiming the Rams the favorite to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl. With the Rams feeling good about their 3-0 record, including winning eight straight games against the Cardinals and playing this one at home, surely they’d be ready for the challenge Arizona presented, right?
The Cardinals came in as if they were ready to make a statement and did just that. They soundly beat the Rams 37-20. Quite frankly, the game wasn’t as close as the score suggests.
The Arizona offense has been nothing short of spectacular all season and Sunday was simply a continuation of this. As I mentioned last week, the Cardinals needed to become more balanced on offense by running the football more efficiently, which would open up their offense even more. Well, they did. They had one of their best outings on the ground by running for more than 219 yards on offense and dominating the time of possession 35:10 to 24:50. This was a major key to the game because it kept the Rams’ offense off the field. Chase Edmonds enjoyed one of his best games as a Cardinal, running for 120 yards on 12 carries.
Speaking of running ability, Kyler Murray’s runs are simply back-breaking to a defense. There was a critical 3rd-and-16 and Rams defensive coordinator Raheem Morris not only knew what to expect but even designated a spy for Murray. The only thing he didn’t account for was Murray using his athleticism to beat the spy and run for a critical first down to keep the drive alive.
Maybe the most surprising thing about the Cardinals’ undefeated streak has been the play of the defense. They entered this game in the top third of the NFL in total defense. Vance Joseph is putting his playmakers in the position to do what they do best. The unit with the most question marks entering the season was the cornerbacks, but Byron Murphy is having a coming-out party and is seemingly well on his way to his first Pro Bowl season.
Although the Cardinals are now the only undefeated team in the NFC and may have the MVP front-runner at the game’s most important position, there still may be some reason for skepticism. Kingsbury-coached teams have been known to fade down the stretch. In fact, at one point last season the Cards were 6-3 but ended up missing the playoffs entirely. However, when Murray is your quarterback, you’ve got a chance to win every game.
Murray’s transcendent talent has made the Cardinals the most dangerous offensive team in the NFL. When Kingsbury doesn’t call the perfect play, Murray can make you look good. He even changes how Kingsbury and Keim are perceived, simply by the way he plays. He has made their offense the football equivalent of the Golden State Warriors. The Cardinals have so much offensive talent and score so many points that to even have a chance of beating them, you must start by expecting to score 30 points—no easy feat in the NFL. In fact, the Cardinals are only the fourth team in NFL history to score 30 points with more than 400 yards of offense in each of the first four games to start the season—the other three teams went on to the Super Bowl.
In the NFL, momentum can be a dangerous thing. I’m not necessarily saying the Cardinals will represent the NFC in the Super Bowl, but with Murray playing quarterback and the potency of this offense, I certainly wouldn’t bet against it.