DAN BICKLEY

Cardinals get required win over Jets to keep hopes alive in NFC West

Oct 11, 2020, 3:31 PM | Updated: 5:37 pm
Arizona Cardinals wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins (10) celebrates after scoring a touchdown during th...

Arizona Cardinals wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins (10) celebrates after scoring a touchdown during the second half of an NFL football game against the New York Jets, Sunday, Oct. 11, 2020, in East Rutherford. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

(AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

This was bigger than a football game. This was a life preserver. The Cardinals grabbed ahold and wouldn’t let go.

They’re still afloat in the NFC West.

Their 30-10 win over the Jets on Sunday was not as impressive as the final score indicates. But style points don’t matter when you win on the road, even without fans in attendance. Not after the first must-win of Kliff Kingsbury’s career.

This victory was also a testament to reset focus, real urgency and a wretched opponent. Don’t underestimate the latter.

“I don’t want anybody on the team to feel satisfied with what happened today,” Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray said.

Longtime Cardinals fans remember when “Get Well” games were Arizona’s gift to the NFL. How struggling outfits always used our football team as a springboard to good health.  It’s nice to be on the receiving end for a change.

The Jets are 0-5 for a reason. They have wide receivers with hands of stone. They played with a backup quarterback carrying more rust than arm talent. They posed little threat to the Cardinals, and Kingsbury might be sending Jets head coach Adam Gase a text in the coming days, apologizing for the collateral damage and ensuing pink slip.

But the Cardinals did their part. Murray noticed the energy bubbling up inside the locker room before the game. That locker room also experienced a transcendent moment after the game, when special teams ace Dennis Gardeck was awarded a game ball.

Gardeck had two sacks filling in for the injured Chandler Jones, who is likely gone for the rest of the season.

“(Gardeck) is hell-on-wheels going on the scout team against our offensive linemen,” Kingsbury said. “That’s what you saw out there today.”

We also saw an extremely balanced offense. Three different players scored rushing touchdowns. We saw a physical rushing attack open up the passing game. Three different receivers were targeted seven times, including the first signs of a real connection between Christian Kirk and Kyler Murray.

“Definitely felt like today was a breakthrough for me and him,” Kirk said.

Aside from the injury to Jones, all of the highly-paid stars called out by general manager Steve Keim responded positively:  Patrick Peterson played at a high-level; Kenyan Drake was better, even if Chase Edmonds has been a better performer in 2020 and needs more carries; Larry Fitzgerald was directly involved; and Murray fought his way through a sloppy first half to amass 380 passing yards.

“You said he threw for 380?” Edmonds asked the media after the game. “I didn’t know that. That’s a sneaky 380.”

Edmonds did not mean any disrespect. To the contrary, the “sneaky” statistical total was a tribute to the diversification and distribution on offense.

“We definitely needed the win,” Edmonds said. “This was a must-win game just to get back on track. Obviously, we had two salty losses (coming into Sunday’s game).”

Yet the biggest turnaround might’ve come from a key performer who wasn’t called out by Keim, namely his head coach. Kingsbury scrapped the bubble screens, the short passes and the unappetizing buffet of dinks and dunks that were driving spectators crazy.

The Cardinals threw the ball downfield and over the middle. They created explosive chunk plays. Their running backs ran vertically instead of scampering to the sidelines. It was a huge philosophical change and a much-needed shift in strategy.

It proves that Kingsbury is not too big to adapt. And in the one moment when the game seemed a little dicey, Kingsbury dialed up a beautiful call on 4th-and-1, badly fooling a defense expecting Murray to run with the football.

“It starts with me putting those guys in position to be successful,” Kingsbury said.

Indeed. Or as Murray put it:

“We have some dudes … at some point you’ve got to let them go.”

In the end, the Cardinals succeeded in getting the win and not playing down to their opponent. They restored hope and excitement in the Valley, creating a tailwind for their upcoming appearance on Monday Night Football. And someday, they might want to thank the NFL schedule makers.

For giving them the Jets after a two-game losing streak, and right before a pair of showcase games. For giving them a life preserver bobbing in a turbulent sea, just when the Cardinals needed it the most.

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