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On the final day of 2023, the Arizona Cardinals played the way they hope to on a consistent basis when the calendar says September, 2024.
Yes, that is a little more than eight months from now, and there remains a lot to do in a crucial offseason.
But the good vibes are the result of a stunning 35-31 victory over the defending NFC champion Eagles Sunday in coach Jonathan Gannon’s return to Philadelphia.
It is also because of the way the team has competed on a weekly basis with an undermanned roster guided by the measured and consistent approach of Gannon and his staff.
As I tweeted after the game ended, “Many might say I’m crazy, but so be it. This season was about creating a way of doing things and establishing a winning culture. Draft position be damned. If you have confidence in talent evaluators, Cardinals will be fine wherever they select.”
Running back James Conner, who rushed for 128 yards on 26 carries while scoring the winning points on a 2-yard run and adding another 5-yard score on a spectacular one-handed catch, told NFL Network afterward that the victory, “means everything. This group is resilient. The offensive line and tight ends did their job with receivers blocking downfield.”
Gannon understandably tried to downplay his emotions in the days leading up to the game, so when quarterback Kyler Murray was asked if it was really just another game for the coach, he said, “I mean, in a sense, yes, it’s just another game, but not just another game, you know? I know he wanted to win it really badly. I would want to win it, so I know the guys felt that energy from him; that we wanted to come out here and do it for him.”
Gannon maintained the consistent message he preaches when he was asked what the win means for the team.
He first said, “I don’t know. I mean, we just played well enough today to win. You know what I mean?”
He then added, “But our guys know if we play football the right way, we can play with anybody. And I know our record isn’t what we want it to be, and that falls on me. But they have confidence. They never waver. And what I’m really pleased about is the way they practice that effort. They stay together. They focus. Attention to detail. A lot of teams just pack it in right now. That’s not our guys in there. So that’s just a tribute to the character in the locker room.”
As for defeating his former team and coaching friend Nick Sirianni, he said, “I’m happy for the players. Obviously the year has been a tough year. We didn’t do enough to earn the right to play in January. So you know, I was really proud of them down 21-6 versus a good team. You could lay down there and get beat by 30. Guys did not do that. So really just happy for the guys how they responded all week. And a good win on the road versus a good football team.”
Heck, they even stopped the Eagles once on their brotherly shove play.
The Cardinals have fought back in other games this season after falling behind, but they usually have ended poorly. Surely, there probably weren’t many people that believed the halftime deficit could be overcome despite the team outgaining the Eagles 179-152, running 17 more plays (38-21) and possessing the ball for 21:48.
In 15 previous games, the Cardinals had been outscored 197-111 in the second half. On this day, it was 29-10 for Arizona in the final two quarters.
In the first 30 minutes, two red-zone opportunities produced only field goals and a breakdown in communication between Murray and wide receiver Michael Wilson ended with Eagles safety Sydney Brown scoring on a 99-yard interception return.
Suddenly, however, the Cardinals became an offensive machine in the second half. They had the ball four times and scored touchdowns on each, all from the red zone.
Entering the game, the Cardinals had 34 red-zone trips this season and scored 174 points on 22 touchdowns and eight field goals. Sunday, all 35 points were from the red zone with three passing scores of 5, 5 and 6 yards and Conner’s 2-yard game-winning run.
In those four possessions, which ran 17:51 off the clock, they ran 34 plays for 270 yards and were helped by a 29-yard pass interference penalty on the possession that tied the game at 28 with 5:26 remaining.
Most important, there was only one negative play. That was a 1-yard loss by running back Michael Carter one play before he scored on a 6-yard pass play that capped a half-opening 10-play, 75-yard drive that made the score 21-13.
In the first half, on the Cardinals’ first possession of the game, they moved to the 3-yard line, but Murray lost nine yards on first down and Matt Prater kicked a 28-yard field goal. The next possession gained 43 yards on eight plays, but that was followed by a sack for minus-4 and the interception touchdown.
The Cardinals marched down the field for another field goal, this one of 34 yards, after left tackle D.J. Humphries was guilty of a false start on third-and-7 at the 16-yard line. That possession lasted a mind-numbing 9:54 and had 16 plays plus three penalties, one on the Eagles.
Murray took control of the offense in the second half, just two days after his only practice of the week.
“I think it was just getting in a groove,” he said. “Focusing on the play that was in the moment, understanding the concepts and what we’re trying to accomplish and execute. Not worrying about anything before or after. Letting it go. It’s feeling good now.”
There was balance and production on the four scoring drives with these eye-opening numbers:
–10 plays, 75 yards, 6:18, 5 runs, 4 passes, 5 first downs.
–9 plays, 77 yards, 5:03, 5 runs, 4 passes plus a successful 2-point conversion pass, 6 first downs.
–8 plays, 48 yards, 4:29, 5 runs, 4 passes including the pass interference, 4 first downs.
–7 plays, 70 yards, 2:01, 4 runs, 3 passes, 4 first downs.
That’s a total of 20 running plays, 14 passes plus the two passes on the penalty and 2-point conversion and 19 first downs.
Murray completed 13 of 14 passes in the second half for 133 yards, three touchdowns and a 145.8 passer rating. For the game, he was 25-for-31 for 232 yards and a 116.7 rating.
It was also a game where the wide receivers and Wilson finally made an impact following a rough stretch after he returned from a shoulder and neck injury. He had no catches on one target in the first half, but on the first touchdown drive, there were two receptions for 17 yards and one first down, a 13-yard first down on the second touchdown drive along with the 2-point conversion and a 5-yard touchdown on fourth-and-4 on the third touchdown drive.
The interception, according to Murray “was just a simple miscommunication. It wasn’t a physical error. It was just a mental lack on my part and his part.”
Of the productive second half, he said, “I know it was a booster for him. He was really excited about it on the sideline after he scored, just to trust him and show him the cut; show him that I got him no matter what. My confidence never wavers in any of those guys. And that’s just who we are. I think it’s a good brotherhood. It’s fun. Fun to go out and play with these guys.”
Meanwhile, wide receiver Greg Dortch had seven catches for 82 yards including a huge 36-yard play that led to the winning touchdown and Rondale Moore contributed three receptions for 26 yards. That’s 14-for-143 from a group that had struggled mightily in recent weeks.
The Cardinals rushed for 221 yards on 40 attempts with Carter accounting for 61 on seven runs.
The overall numbers are startling in what was a 4-point victory. The Cardinals possessed the ball for 39:39 and the Eagles 20:21. They ran 72 plays for 449 yards and 32 first downs, while the Eagles had only 47 plays for 275 yards and 17 first downs.
Blake Gillikin never punted and that has happened only once in the last 60 years for the Cardinals: Against the Vikings on Nov. 26, 2006.
Aside from making critical plays, the game might have been won by the unconventional decision by Gannon to attempt an onside kick after the Cardinals tied the game with 5:26 remaining.
Very few are recovered in the NFL, but the element of surprise provided a better chance. However, that wasn’t the true reason it was attempted. The Eagles recovered at the 39-yard line, but after moving to the 20, a holding penalty on tackle Jordan Mailata moved them back 10 yards.
Quarterback Jalen Hurts gained four yards, but safety Budda Baker dropped him for a 3-yard loss, setting up third-and-19. A short pass gained four yards and Jake Elliott kicked a 43-yard field goal for a 31-28 Eagles lead. However, the seven snaps took only 2:33 of the clock providing Murray and Co. with enough time to travel 70 yards for the winning touchdown.
Said Gannon, “It worked. That’s what we talked about. That’s what I’m talking about. The reason for that is you don’t want to get bled out. That team is too good. I trust the defense to get a stop right there and make them kick a field goal, which is what they did, but with five minutes left, what they’ve shown is they’re not going to give you the ball back. And I wanted to make sure at all costs Kyler had the ball in his hand. At the end of the game, whatever you’re down, and that’s what we did.”
What they did was win, which the Cardinals have done against four teams with a combined 38-26 record. And perhaps, unfortunately, there are those lamenting the fact that they moved down in the draft order and could move down more with a win over Seattle next week.
Hopefully, more fans place value on winning than drafting Marvin Harrison Jr. The 2024 draft has numerous top-level receivers and as one personnel executive told PHNX, “You don’t have to get the best receiver as long as you get one of the best.”
Most important, having players with the right mindset going forward is more important than a couple spots in the draft if general manager Monti Ossenfort and Co. take care of business.
What we also witnessed Sunday is what we have seen in the past from Murray and that also bodes well for 2024 and beyond.
Gannon said, “I thought Kyler was lights out today. James Conner was lights out. The (offensive) line. That’s a really good front. We ran it up and down the field. Just really hats off to the players. The resilience. The week of practice that we had. We were on it today.”
Continuing about Murray, Gannon said, “I thought he operated well in a hostile environment. You guys heard how loud it was. You know, I told those guys, it’s a really tough place to play. It’s a great place to play. The environment is legit. Unbelievable sports city. But I thought he made plays. He hung in there. He made plays with his legs. He was accurate and found the open people, got us in the right stuff. Hadn’t had to take any timeouts with delays. That’s always a thing when it’s loud on the road. I thought he was lights out today.
“We controlled the line of scrimmage. He wasn’t in harm’s way a lot when he dropped back and we ran it pretty good. And that’s what you need to do. We tried to keep Jalen off the field a little bit too, which the offense went into that. And they did that.”
Perhaps most crucial was what Gannon watched and heard from Murray in the game-winning drive.
He said, “I felt really good after the two-minute (warning) there to look and once I got on the headset and he said, ‘Guys, we’re going to win the game.’ I could see it in his face. And that’s what he did.”
Murray said, “(He) actually told me go win it, which I mean, he didn’t even need to say. That’s just the killer instinct you’ve got to have in this sport. Not only this sport, just in life for me as far as to try and make the most of every moment coming into the building. Obviously, a great team to go and win it, and the guys, they played well. They played great today. We executed and we did our thing and, it’s good. It’s good to feel that.
“Obviously with everything that’s happened, a lot of disappointment this year, a lot of tough losses. But trying to finish the season off the right way.”
And no should be upset with that exhilarating ending.
Don’t hesitate to comment or ask questions on Twitter @hbalzer721 or email me: firstname.lastname@example.org. Also, become a DIEHARD and use the promo code HOWARD
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