Cardinals get reality check to NFC West hopes with loss to Lions

Sep 27, 2020, 6:32 PM | Updated: Sep 28, 2020, 7:46 am
Arizona Cardinals head coach Kliff Kingsbury watches during the first half of an NFL football game ...
Arizona Cardinals head coach Kliff Kingsbury watches during the first half of an NFL football game against the Detroit Lions, Sunday, Sept. 27, 2020, in Glendale, Ariz. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)
(AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

The Cardinals made a powerful, awful declaration on Sunday:

They are not yet ready to win the NFC West.

They lost a gut-wrenching game to an inferior opponent at State Farm Stadium. They were bested by a Lions’ team that entered with an 11-game losing streak. They squandered a fourth-quarter lead, their civic momentum and a chance to improve to 3-0.

It’s surely no consolation, but Kyler Murray felt just like you did watching the game-winning field goal split the uprights.

“When you believe you should’ve won a game, and you don’t do the necessary things to win the game, that’s going to be frustrating,” Murray said.

After the game, Murray blamed himself for the three interceptions. Head coach Kliff Kingsbury was highly critical of his own play-calling, as he should be. Their defense coughed up another fourth-quarter lead and surrendered more chunk plays to the opposing tight end, a problem that was allegedly solved in the offseason.

In one gruesome sideline snapshot, there seemed to be great confusion/panic between Kingsbury and his defensive coordinator, Vance Joseph. They will now lose their best defensive player, Budda Baker, who must undergo surgery on his damaged thumb and miss at least one game. This is an obvious setback.

We all hoped this team was better than that.

“I feel in this league you get what you earn,” defensive lineman Corey Peters said. “And today we earned a loss.”

Failure was everywhere. Larry Fitzgerald had only once reception and seems to be a bit player in the 2020 offense. Kingsbury and Murray both vowed to do better at feeding the most popular athlete in Arizona history, but Fitzgerald barely looked open on the three targets that came his way. And this much seems obvious:

Very few professional athletes need fans at home games like Fitzgerald, where he is the object of Arizona’s adoration.

Meanwhile, Kenyan Drake didn’t start the game and isn’t running with the same explosiveness he displayed in 2019. The coaching staff isn’t showcasing or elevating the play of Isaiah Simmons, an impact rookie selected with the eighth overall pick.

Last week, the Cardinals felt blessed to play sub-par football and still post 30 points in an easy victory against Washington’s football team. After losing to the Lions, they look like a team that isn’t playing to its potential.

“You can’t get comfortable at any time,” wide receiver Andy Isabella said. “No matter what you’re doing in life.”

Isabella was a rare exception, scoring two touchdowns on Sunday and showing real growth in his ability to get off the line of scrimmage. But who else can say they had a great game on Sunday?

More to the point:

The Cardinals can’t afford to underachieve against anyone, not in a division as loaded as the NFC West. The Rams posted a 29-point comeback before losing to the Bills on Sunday. The decimated 49ers somehow mauled the Giants. Russell Wilson won’t let the Seahawks lose.

The Cardinals needed to prove they could stay in the race, sustain the pace. And that’s why Sunday was so painful. It was a bad effort from a good team. It was a shanked tee shot with no mulligans available. It removes margin for error later in the season when the schedule gets extremely difficult, like when they play the Patriots and Seahawks in the span of seven days; where they play the Seahawks twice, the Cowboys, the Dolphins and the Bills in a span of five weeks.

You can’t lose to the Lions and not pay the price.

“We didn’t play particularly well,” Kingsbury said. “You can see that.”

Kingsbury needs to get better and smarter with his fourth-down decisions. He needs to quit taking Murray off the field in the most important moments. It will make the locker room think less of him, and that’s a guarantee.

If Chris Streveler is that good, play him on first-, second- or third-downs during the normal ebb-and-flow of a football game. But these gimmicky reflexes in high-leverage situations have to stop.

On paper, Sunday’s loss isn’t that damning. Game statistics are eerily equal in almost every category, like they are most weeks in the NFL. The big difference was turnovers. This is exactly the type of loss that can be easily explained to the media and the owner.

But this loss also proves something else:

The Cardinals are not ready to be special. Not yet. Not like their division requires.

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