PHOENIX – Before Sunday, the last time the Arizona Cardinals took the field in a meaningful game was January in Los Angeles. With playoff implications on the line, the Cardinals laid an egg and lost 18-7, ending their 2020 season at 8-8.
The shutdown of a high-powered Tennessee Titans offense Sunday combined with an offensive explosion has changed national perception of the team.
“The Cardinals’ defense is legitimate – as in Super Bowl-good,” read one ESPN article.
“Arizona has a complete team. General manager Steve Keim has assembled a playoff roster,” said another NFL.com piece.
At one point in the second half, the Cardinals offense was chalking up big plays so quickly that the Cardinals social team was struggling to keep up, tweeting, “We literally cannot post stuff fast enough…”
In Week 1, the Cardinals shocked the NFL by dominating one of the AFC’s top contenders. Arizona drubbed the defending AFC South champion Tennessee Titans 38-13.
Quarterback Kyler Murray led the way, recording five touchdowns. Receivers DeAndre Hopkins and Christian Kirk each caught two touchdown passes. And linebacker Chandler Jones had five sacks and forced two fumbles.
While some other NFC West teams got more attention during the offseason with their quarterback moves, the buzz around the Cardinals involved the addition of defensive end J.J. Watt, a five-time All-Pro during his years in Houston, but also their problems at cornerback after the departure of Patrick Peterson in the offseason and the abrupt retirement of veteran Malcom Butler during camp.
However, the Cardinals quickly changed the narrative with Sunday’s eye-opening victory and proved that they can compete in what might prove to be the NFL’s toughest division. The NFC West went a combined 4-0 on the opening Sunday.
Murray was the offensive catalyst, adding a touchdown run to those four scoring passes. He regularly made pinpoint passes and was able to maneuver himself behind the line of scrimmage to extend plays or scramble for yardage on the ground.
“If we awarded the league MVP in Week 1, Kyler Murray won it in a landslide,” read one NFL.com article.
With Murray and the offense operating at a high level, the Cardinals will be a tough team to beat, and Murray appears ready to take the next step in his development.
“He knows it’s his team, and he knows we’re going to go as far as he takes us,” coach Kilff Kingsbury told reporters on Monday. “He’s embraced that, worked hard at it and will continue to do so.”
If Murray made an MVP case, Chandler Jones made an early case for Defensive Player of the Year, becoming the 18th player in NFL history to record a five sack performance (since sacks were officially recorded in 1982). He became the second Cardinals player to do so, joining Haason Reddick, who had five sacks last December in a game against the Giants.
“He’s been incredible since he came into the league and particularly since he got out to Arizona,” Kingsbury said of the 6-foot-5, 265-pound Jones.
Kingsbury noted that when the Cardinals signed Watt, they knew it would create a “pick your poison” scenario for opposing offenses, and it would be a tall task to stop them both.
“It was Chandler’s day, and he took full advantage of it,” Kingsbury said.
The pressure the Cardinals put on Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill is one thing, but stifling Titans running back Derrick Henry was equally impressive. The reigning Associated Press NFL Offensive Player of the Year has led the league in rushing in two straight seasons, including last year where he became just the eighth player ever to rush for over 2,000 yards in a season.
On Sunday, Henry ran 17 times for 58 yards. That would’ve been his second lowest total in 2020.
“That group has really stepped up to the challenge,” Kingsbury said of his team’s defensive line.
Next up for the Cardinals is a familiar foe, as Peterson makes his return to Arizona. The Cardinals play host to the Minnesota Vikings (0-1) and Peterson on Sep. 19 in their home opener.
“There’s certain players, Pat Pete being one of them, that you got to know where they are at all times,” Kingsbury said. “But I try to attack a defense schematically the best way I can and try to get our best matchups out there.”
If Sunday in Tennessee was any indication of what fans can expect from the 2021 Cardinals, they will be one of the toughest teams to beat in all of football.