DAN BICKLEY

Cardinals’ late-game magic gives Valley something to cheer for

Sep 13, 2020, 5:52 PM | Updated: 9:40 pm
Arizona Cardinals cornerback Patrick Peterson (21) gestures during the second half of an NFL footba...

Arizona Cardinals cornerback Patrick Peterson (21) gestures during the second half of an NFL football game against the San Francisco 49ers in Santa Clara, Calif., Sunday, Sept. 13, 2020. (AP Photo/Josie Lepe)

(AP Photo/Josie Lepe)

Pandemic and wildfires be damned. The Cardinals have turned a corner. They are a winning team for the first time since the 2015 season.

Their 24-20 victory over the 49ers on Sunday was a testament to new beginnings.

The offense was mostly boring and occasionally stagnant. But it was good enough to beat the defending NFC West champions and Super Bowl bridesmaids.

Quarterback Kyler Murray is still struggling to make plays with his arm down the field. Sometimes, the dink-and-dunk tactics are infuriating, and you wonder if his size indeed limits his field of vision. He is still making too many mistakes out of self-preservation.

But on Sunday, Murray took his rushing skills to another level. He made the plays required to win on the road against a favored opponent. That will cause nightmares for defensive coordinators down the road.

The debut of DeAndre Hopkins was spectacular. His productivity — 14 catches, 151 yards — was profound. He was targeted 16 times, a statistic that explains how easily and consistently he gets open. This is why smart football teams don’t care if Hopkins practices or not.

Kliff Kingsbury’s play-calling was underwhelming, at best, especially with the revved up expectations entering this season. But to be fair, they were playing the 49ers on the road. They were dealing with fluctuating air quality that threatened to postpone the game. Like every other NFL franchise, they were dealing with an abbreviated training camp and zero preseason games.

This was not an easy feat. And Kingsbury’s strategy of playing conservatively, staying close to the vest and on the scoreboard, thereby allowing Murray to win the game late … well, who can argue with the results?

But here’s what many of us did not expect to see on Sunday: The defense was surprisingly good, even with the disastrous debut of first-round pick Isaiah Simmons.

The rookie linebacker from Clemson was exposed and embarrassed by 49ers’ head coach/play-caller Kyle Shanahan. Simmons should’ve never been asked to start this game, a player who was listed as a backup on the team’s original depth chart. You only hope he has thick skin.

But Budda Baker was monstrously good, worth every penny of his new contract. De’Vondre Campbell brought a lot of juice to the field. Angelo Blackson looks like a great late addition to the team. Patrick Peterson made a beautiful recovery to defend a potential touchdown pass and save the game at the end. The 49ers struggled mightily on third down. The Cardinals again corralled the 49ers’ dominant running game. They posted a nifty goal-line stand. They stood stout in the clutch, relinquishing the lead once but not twice at the end.

This is exactly what the Valley needed, a jolt of late-game magic and early-season pride to captivate our attention and our imaginations. The Suns went 8-0 in the bubble and still missed the playoffs. The Coyotes made the playoffs and still ended on a sour note. The Diamondbacks are a disgrace, right down to their new rat mascot.

But our NFL team is 1-0. They just took down a Top 5 team on the road. This was an impact statement to start a new season, and the outcome will raise eyebrows across the NFL, a reminder that Arizona is on the rise. Maybe even a sweetheart team in 2020.

Especially when the Cardinals’ defense looked so good in the smoky haze of Santa Clara. Especially when their offense can be so much better.

Dan Bickley

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Cardinals’ late-game magic gives Valley something to cheer for