DAN BICKLEY

Arizona Cardinals make statement in final home game of the season

Dec 15, 2019, 6:46 PM | Updated: Dec 16, 2019, 11:13 am
Arizona Cardinals tight end Charles Clay (85) celebrates his touchdown catch against the Cleveland ...

Arizona Cardinals tight end Charles Clay (85) celebrates his touchdown catch against the Cleveland Browns during the first half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Dec. 15, 2019, in Glendale, Ariz. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)

(AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)

Baseball teams aren’t supposed to upstage their NFL counterparts on Sundays in December.

Nobody in Arizona seemed to mind.

The Cardinals shellacked the Browns 38-24 on a day when Kyler Murray claimed bragging rights over a celebrated college teammate; Kenyan Drake scored four touchdowns, breaking his personal 14-game losing streak; Larry Legend might’ve played his last game in Arizona; and Madison Bumgarner joined the Diamondbacks’ starting rotation.

It was a day when a signature victory was overshadowed by a signature on a contract.

Pinch yourself. This is proof that two good things can happen to Arizona sports fans on the same day. And the Cardinals needed this almost as much as the Diamondbacks needed a new ace.

“It was our last stand at home,” Cardinals head coach Kliff Kingsbury said. “We needed to make a statement.”

Arizona’s fourth victory of the season officially surpassed the win total from 2018, giving the team tangible proof of progress. The roar from the locker room immediately after the game was audible evidence of how much this organization needed a victory, and how much their players will enjoy a rare Monday off.

Murray outplayed Baker Mayfield in a battle of Heisman Trophy winners from Oklahoma, and it wasn’t even close. The Cardinals received a Pro Bowl effort from cornerback Patrick Peterson and five touchdowns from two players who weren’t even on the roster to start the season.

“This is the first game all year we played (well) from start to finish,” offensive lineman Justin Pugh said.

It was a strong effort from Kingsbury. His play-calling kept the Browns on roller skates, and the balanced attack featured 226 rushing yards. Thus, in a matchup between current head coach and former head coach, Kingsbury wins by knockout.

This game was important because it was the final home game of the season at State Farm Stadium, where the Cardinals were threatening to post successive one-win seasons for the first time in over 60 years. A six-game losing streak is officially over, and for the moment, so is the obsession with Steve Keim’s job status.

The game was important because it might be the last home appearance for Larry Fitzgerald, the most popular athlete in Valley history. Fitzgerald gave no clues and made no declarations after Sunday’s game, a day that began with an ominous yet grateful Tweet from his father, thanking Arizona fans for all their support over the years.

Fitzgerald reiterated that his father does not speak for him, that he keeps his most personal decisions to himself. And then he said something really funny.

“Everyone is replaceable,” Fitzgerald said. “There will be another No. 11 in here a couple months after I’m gone.”

Mostly, the game was important because it reaffirmed Murray as a franchise player. His regression in the previous two losses changed the narrative in Arizona. It laid bare the sorry state of Arizona’s 53-man roster. It was a painful reminder of how far this football team has fallen since reaching the NFC Championship Game in Jan. 2016.

But Murray effectively hit the reset button. He did not accept sacks or sabotage the team with negative plays. He was decisive. He ran the ball with the courage, not sliding at the end of plays or looking for a soft landing. It was a showcase for a young quarterback who leads by example, a player who took a huge step forward while eliminating the Browns from playoff contention.

After the game, Kingsbury reminded everyone how hard it is for an introverted, 22-year old rookie to be handed a starting job on draft day, tasked with leading grizzled men and future Hall of Famers without a whiff of NFL experience.

On this day, Murray rediscovered his mojo, soothing the civic mood, resuscitating hope for the immediate future.

“We need to close this (season) out with him putting his stamp on it, being a leader,” Kingsbury said.

Murray succeeded. So did the rest of the beleaguered Cardinals.

Even if it was the baseball team that took your breath away.

Reach Bickley at dbickley@bonneville.com. Listen to Bickley & Marotta weekdays from 10 a.m.–2 p.m. on 98.7 FM Arizona’s Sports Station.

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