Alright, hand up, I did not expect the Arizona Cardinals to start this season 6-0–but did anyone really? They’re the only undefeated team left in the NFL, and I’m not sure if anyone had that on their bingo card through the first six weeks of the 2021 season.
What’s been most impressive about this opening run from Arizona is the stretch of teams they’ve faced and defeated already. Yes, some of their matchups were easier than others (*cough* Jacksonville Jaguars *cough*), but they’ve also had success against in-division opponents like the San Francisco 49ers and Los Angeles Rams, the latter of which was a team fresh off a win against Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Even teams like the Tennessee Titans—who beat the Buffalo Bills on Monday night—and Cleveland Browns look like they could contend for a playoff spot this year. This is an Arizona team that has beaten some of the league’s best teams, including Super Bowl contenders, and they’ve looked good doing it.
Of course, the guy whose performances have highlighted so many of these wins so far is their quarterback and former first overall pick, Kyler Murray. He has just been playing completely out of his mind so far this season, leading the NFL with a completion rate of just under 74% and just behind Matthew Stafford with the league’s third-best passer rating (116.2). Those marks—along with his 14 passing and three rushing touchdowns—have Murray tied with Dallas Cowboys signal-caller Dak Prescott as leaders in NFL MVP betting odds. Murray has looked incredible so far this season with his arm and mobility both inside and outside of the pocket, and there’s no shortage of highlight plays to prove it. Shout out to Rondale Moore here as well for adding an extra dimension to the pass game as a rookie alongside guys like DeAndre Hopkins and A.J. Green. It’s an incredibly hard receiving corps to defend.
In the run game, Arizona has shown off a formidable one-two punch in the form of Chase Edmonds and goal-line back James Conner. The two have combined for almost 600 yards of offense and six touchdowns and are cumulatively averaging almost four and a half yards per carry. With production from their running backs like that, it’s not a surprise that even a team with a stud quarterback like Murray still chooses to run the football 47.6% of the time, the fourth-most in the NFL.
The Cardinals’ defense isn’t anything to scoff at, either. They’ve currently allowed the second-fewest opponent points per game (18.2), trailing only the stout Bills defensive unit that didn’t look quite as strong this past Monday. Arizona is also second in the NFL in defensive and overall DVOA behind that same Bills team, boasting the second-highest DVOA against the pass and eighth-highest against opponents’ rushes.
It sure seems like the departure of cornerback Patrick Peterson—who the Minnesota Vikings placed on the IR on Monday—didn’t hit the Cardinals too hard. Trading for Markus Golden last season and adding J.J. Watt to the defensive line in the offseason definitely helped. This Cardinals defensive unit has been so strong that even with Zach Allen, Corey Peters, and Chandler Jones—not to mention their head coach, Kliff Kingsbury—missing on Sunday, they still generated 16 pressures and sacked Baker Mayfield three times, holding the Browns to just 14 points. Mayfield’s 57-yard Hail Mary accounted for half of those points and was Arizona’s only big defensive miscue. After that, Cleveland didn’t score another point.
The big question to ask about this Cardinals team is how sustainable it is. We saw Arizona get off to a hot 5-2 start before their bye week last year, just to fizzle out in the second half and slide all the way out of playoff contention. The good news for the Cardinals is that their schedule doesn’t get much harder from here. They host the Houston Texans next week, will face their greatest test as a (probably) still-undefeated team the following week against the Green Bay Packers, then at the 49ers, home against the Carolina Panthers, and finally at the Seattle Seahawks before their bye week. Given the struggles of every opponent besides the Packers, along with the likely return of the players who have missed time with COVID-19 in time for their Green Bay matchup, it isn’t that unlikely to say we could see an 11-0 Arizona team entering their bye week.
Murray has looked nearly unstoppable on offense with weapons like Hopkins and Moore out wide, Edmonds and Conner in the backfield, and—oh, yeah—tight end Zach Ertz, whom the Cardinals just acquired in a trade. Provided Murray keeps playing like an MVP candidate while the defense continues their dominance on the other side of the ball, Arizona should be able to take care of business over the next five weeks.
After their bye, the Cardinals still get to play struggling teams like the Chicago Bears, Detroit Lions, and Indianapolis Colts along with a Rams rematch, the (almost certainly) first-place Dallas Cowboys, and another game against Seattle. Are they Super Bowl contenders? I’m not sure I’d say so yet given last year’s back-half collapse, but they can definitely prove me wrong in the coming weeks.