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Cardinals overcome missed chances in season-opening win vs. 49ers

Arizona Cardinals linebacker Chandler Jones (55) sacks San Francisco 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo during the first half of an NFL football game in Santa Clara, Calif., Sunday, Sept. 13, 2020. (AP Photo/Tony Avelar)

With no preseason and an abbreviated offseason, opportunities on either side of the football are that much more critical.

Every play matters just a little bit extra in 2020.

Fortunately for the Cardinals, mistakes and miscues didn’t spell the end for Arizona in the team’s 24-20 season-opening victory over the San Francisco 49ers. The win puts the Cardinals over .500 for the first time since 2015.

Starting slow out of the gate, the Cardinals quickly found themselves behind the eight ball. Accounting for just over 20 yards through the first two series, Arizona was clearly out of sync.

As for the 49ers, they used an opening drive field goal to capture an early lead before running back Raheem Mostert took a short Jimmy Garoppolo pass 76 yards for the first score of the day just a series later.

But just as the game seemed to be slipping out of the Cardinals’ grasp, Arizona’s special teams awoke the beast.

Capitalizing on the first stop of the game, the Cardinals’ special teams got the best of the 49ers, with linebacker Ezekiel Turner blocking punter Mitch Wishnowsky. Fellow LB Dennis Gardeck jumped on the ball at San Francisco’s 10-yard line.

That was all second-year quarterback Kyler Murray and the offense needed. Using one play from scrimmage, Murray connected with running back Chase Edmonds for the 10-yard score.

“That was huge,” head coach Kliff Kingsbury said after the game. “I thought the special teams overall was phenomenal. We have a great unit. Coach [Jeff] Rodgers has done a tremendous job of building that culture and with that group, our core special teams guys. It wasn’t going very good and Zeke came through and gave us a short field when we were struggling offensively and we were able to punch it in.”

The Cardinals used that quick change of momentum to their advantage defensively.

On the next series, Arizona allowed San Francisco to drive down the field to the goal line, leading to a Mostert rushing attempt from a yard out. When the dust settled, however, the running back was right where he started, unable to cross the plane. Credit the stop to Devon Kennard and De’Vondre Campbell. In the pair’s first game with Arizona, the linebackers were the main reason for the turnover on downs. Kennard finished the game with the one tackle, while Campbell recorded seven.

Backed up on their own one-yard line, Murray and the offense were able to get some breathing room, allowing the QB more room to work. He used that space to get the team into field-goal range, setting up Zane Gonzalez for the 52-yard field goal attempt.

The distance was there. The accuracy was not as Gonzalez missed the kick wide right.

Luckily for the Cardinals, Gonzalez was given another shot to end the first half. He converted that one, a career-long 56-yarder, to bring the score to 13-10.

Gonzalez’s roller coaster of a season opener poured into the third quarter.

Taking the opening drive of the second half, the Cardinals moved the chains into San Francisco territory. Looking to even the score, Gonzalez stepped in on the 12th play of the drive for a 49-yard field goal. And much like the first attempt, the kick sailed wide right.

At this point in a game against a capable team last season, this would have provided a sucker punch to the Cardinals. Instead, they rose to the occasion.

The defense responded first, not allowing any type of 49ers momentum to start in the third quarter. Leading the way was safety Budda Baker, who set a team-high in tackles in the victory (15). Linebacker Chandler Jones and linemen Zach Allen and Angelo Blackson had a sack apiece.

And with the defense holding strong, the offense turned the tide.

Stringing together a 14-play, 94-yard drive, the Cardinals struck first in the fourth quarter thanks to the legs of Murray. The QB scampered 22 yards for the score, capturing the team’s first lead of the game with just under nine minutes to play.

“I don’t know if we could have have hung around [in this type of game] last year,” Kingsbury said. “I think that speaks to [Murray’s] maturity, his leadership. Being able to hang in there mentally because it wasn’t pretty early. Players are rusty, I was rusty with my playcalling and they did a great job defensively early, but he never batted an eye. He made plays with his feet and when things weren’t going as well as we would have liked in the passing game.

“We all feel like we can be more efficient as an offense, but he continued to make plays when they had to be made. His teammates respect the heck out of him because they know he’s going to fight. He’s not the biggest guy but he’s going to give you everything he’s got out there.”

That was plenty of time for the 49ers, who needed only about two minutes to regain the lead and shift the momentum.

Or so they thought.

Burning more than three minutes off the clock, Murray and Co. drove 75 yards down the field, putting an exclamation point on the drive thanks to a one-yard touchdown run from Kenyan Drake.

The score set the stage for one last stand by the defense.

Starting from their own 25-yard line, the 49ers moved the ball down the field, getting in the red zone with around a minute left to play. But just as it looked like the 49ers were going to find a way to crush the Cardinals’ dreams of a season-opening win, veteran cornerback Patrick Peterson made a heads up play. Literally.

After wide receiver Kendrick Bourne stutter stepped his way open into the end zone, Peterson recovered with a massive pass deflection that took seven points — and the lead — away from the 49ers.

The All-Pro stepped up first, but it was second-year CB Byron Murphy who sealed the deal for Arizona.

Targeted twice in the final two plays by Garoppolo, Murphy made the QB pay for looking his way, recording back-to-back pass deflections and forcing a turnover on downs for the home team.

“I was just talking to Budda,” Murray said after the game. “That [last stand the 49ers] just had. We were in that same situation last year and I [was sitting] on the sidelines just sitting there thinking this just feels different.

“I felt like we were going to come out on top and we did, so I think that’s just a testament to our team sticking in it, facing adversity today that we haven’t been able to face all camp with no preseason or stuff like that. Proud of the way the guys fought today.”

It’s obvious the Cardinals got better on paper. There’s no denying that. But actually going out and executing in live action? That’s where the money’s made.

They made their mistakes throughout the game, some that would have put the last nail in the coffin for the team in 2019, but Arizona showed it had the will and the fire power to hang with the best of them.

Next up, the Washington Football Team.

Phillips Law Group

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