A decent effort wasn’t going to cut it anymore for the Cardinals. Losers of six straight games entering Sunday’s final home game of the year against the Cleveland Browns, they had to stop the bleeding. But they needed more than just a tourniquet.
More than ever, they also had to start showing some immediate improvement across the board after taking far too many steps backward during the second half of the season. It was getting out of hand and starting to feel eerily familiar to last season’s embarrassing product.
And nobody wants to still be connected to that.
With last year’s head coach, Steve Wilks, now the Browns’ defensive coordinator, standing on the visitor’s sideline, the Cardinals responded to all the challenges they’ve been facing and finally delivered some encouraging play with a 38-24 victory at State Farm Stadium.
Whether they revert to previous form and fail to finish when they close out the season with road dates against the Seahawks and Rams remains to be seen. But on this afternoon, the Cardinals were able to finally rediscover themselves in all three phases of the game.
“Yeah, it was important,” coach Kliff Kingsbury said. “We wanted to play better than we have and win more games. The one thing I’ve said all along is the guys have played hard, they’ve showed up to work and they practice hard.
“Execution wasn’t always there on Sundays like we needed it to beat some of those great teams, but today, they put it together and continued to play hard. There’s a lot of pride in that locker room.”
Not that there wasn’t anything left to play for on Sunday.
The Cardinals (4-9-1) had that ugly losing streak on the line. They could also officially eliminate the Browns (6-8) from playoff contention with a victory. And there were multiple other story lines that made this more than just a sleepy, ho-hum game in December between two clubs with losing records.
There were the returns of Wilks as well as Browns head coach Freddie Kitchens, a former longtime Cardinals’ assistant, to the Valley. There was the specter as to whether this might be Larry Fitzgerald’s final home game in a Cardinals uniform and questions if Arizona would ever win another home game after having done so only twice in their past 15 tries.
And, of course, there was the great build-up between the starting quarterbacks – Arizona’s Kyler Murray and Cleveland’s Baker Mayfield – and the battle of back-to-back Heisman Trophy winners, No. 1 overall draft picks and former teammates at Oklahoma.
Murray praised his entire team, saying, “I think we just played really good complimentary football, which is what you have to do.”
Mayfield passed for more yards (247) than Murray (219) and he had more touchdown throws (two) than the Cardinals’ rookie (one), but Murray led his team on five touchdown drives and added 56 rushing yards to set the single-season franchise record for most rushing yards by a quarterback (504).
Oh, and he also won the game.
“He told me he had bragging rights,” Mayfield said. “That’s basically the end of it. We have a good relationship, so he was giving me a hard time. Just went with the punches.”
Nobody threw down harder, though, than Cardinals running back Kenyan Drake, who won the day with a career-high four rushing touchdowns on a career-high 137 yards. The Cardinals finished with 226 rushing yards overall, their second-highest output of the year.
“The ‘W,’ that’s the most important thing,” said Drake, who joined the team in late October in a trade from the Dolphins. “… We’ve got to go out and get one goal and that’s get a win. My performance doesn’t necessarily mean anything more than there’s a next game and we have two more left. We’re ready to put our best foot forward and play the ball we’re capable of doing.”
Kingsbury credited the offensive line multiple times during his postgame news conference and it was deserved for a unit that had been criticized harshly for most of the season. Not only did the line open hole for Drake, but it protected Murray, who despite being the most-sacked quarterback in the league this season, wasn’t sacked once on Sunday.
“I’m proud of the guys,” left guard Justin Pugh said. “We put the work in. Coming back after that bye week, we had two rough games (against the Rams and Steelers) and you’re going to get the criticism. But it shows the character of the guys in this locker room, on this team.
“We’re going to come back, we’re going to work, and the offensive line is a microcosm of that because we have great guys on this team. I’m proud of the group. We responded and now we have to carry this over to the next two weeks.”
So does the Cardinals’ defense, which had one of its better games in recent weeks despite allowing 24 points. Arizona only allowed one rushing play longer than 7 yards and it mostly limited the damage through the air from Mayfield.
“I feel great about how we played today,” safety Budda Baker said. “The most important thing is we can’t take another step back. We have keep taking a step forward. We’re going to enjoy this day, and then get after it because it’s off to Seattle next week.”
The Cardinals have typically played well there in recent seasons, but it probably would feel like a tougher fight had they come out of this one with another loss.
“We’ve been in close games all year,” said cornerback Patrick Peterson, who picked a good time to play his best game of the season. “To finally have a win like this at home with the last game of the season here, it can give us momentum going into the 2020 season. Hopefully, we left the fans with a good taste in their mouths and hopefully we can come back and continue building on these last two weeks and that can roll over into next season.”
As for Fitzgerald, who caught all three of his passes during the Cardinals’ first possession of the game, he wasn’t about to get teary-eyed if this turned out to be his last game in front of the Red Sea.
“No, no,” he said. “I told you, man. It’s a job. I love what I do, but when it’s over, it’s over. I’m not going to lose any sleep. I’ve got a lot of great things ahead of me.”
If it was his last home game, Fitzgerald knows he’s leaving the Cardinals in a good place after watching how the club responded on Sunday.
“We have high character men in this room. I’ve known that from the very beginning,” he said. “It hasn’t equated to the victories and success that I would have liked or that we would have liked, but the men work hard. They stay together and they fight and that’s really a sign of a good culture being created here. With the youth of some of the guys and the way they fight, that bodes well for the future.”
Have an opinion on the Arizona Cardinals? Reach McManaman at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @azbobbymac. Listen to him live on Fox Sports 910-AM every Tuesday afternoon at 3:30 on Calling All Sports with Roc and Manuch and every Wednesday night from 7-9 on The Freaks with Kenny and Crash.
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