A checklist for the Arizona Cardinals securing a playoff berth

Nov 2, 2020, 7:24 PM | Updated: Nov 3, 2020, 7:14 pm
Arizona Cardinals head coach Kliff Kingsbury talks with quarterback Kyler Murray (1) during the sec...

Arizona Cardinals head coach Kliff Kingsbury talks with quarterback Kyler Murray (1) 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)

The Cardinals are primetime players and part-time enigmas. They score more points than they prove.

Here’s a checklist if they’re going to secure a playoff berth in 2020:

They must come out of their bye week with real intensity. The Cardinals obviously get fired up for NFC West rivals. Their best work of the season came in a season opener at San Francisco and on Sunday Night Football against the Seahawks. They eventually outclassed the Cowboys on Monday Night Football, in Kyler Murray’s return to Texas.

They have also been prone to strange bouts of lethargy and low-energy football, playing down to the quality of their opponent. That can’t happen again.

The Cardinals have won three consecutive games for the second time in Kliff Kingsbury’s tenure as head coach. The last time it happened, they followed up with a six-game losing streak. That can’t happen again, either.

The Cardinals have scored 30 or more points in three consecutive games, but Murray must continue to improve his mechanics. Kurt Warner points to his footwork as an obvious issue, the collateral damage from having a highly-athletic, former baseball player at quarterback.

“I would make a lot of tweaks,” Warner said. “Fundamentally, there are a lot of times that he’s got a bunch of different things going on.”

Kingsbury is a former quarterback. He is surely aware of the issues, and Murray has been better over the past six quarters. But the Cardinals offense struggles most when Murray misses wide-open receivers, when his technique is compromised and frustration grows between his ears and inside the huddle. You can miss big throws in easy games but you can’t miss easy throws in big games. And they’re all big moving forward.

The Cardinals have two division games remaining against Los Angeles, and Vance Joseph must prove he has an answer for the Rams and their parlor tricks. Since Sean McVay took over in L.A. in 2017, the Rams are 6-0 against the Cardinals, winning by the following scores: 33-0, 32-16, 34-0, 31-9, 34-7, 31-24. The pattern is as clear as it is painful:

Arizona gets blown out by the Rams in their first meeting, only to lose by a respectable margin in the encore. This is a product of talent and inferior coaching, and the Cardinals have certainly had both in recent years.

The 2020 Cardinals need to be different. They have already broken one trend, finally besting the Seahawks at State Farm Stadium. Now, they must find a way to beat the Rams.

General manager Steve Keim can’t allow other NFC contenders to widen the gap at Tuesday’s trade deadline. Since Week 1, Keim has plucked his reinforcements from a very small nest, mostly players with some familiarity or those who once worked in Arizona. He has plenty of salary cap room available. Why not take a shot at J.J. Watt or Stephon Gilmore?

Maybe the Cardinals think it’s too soon for dramatic gestures. Maybe they think a Super Bowl isn’t possible until Year 3 of Kingsbury/Murray, just like McVay/Jared Goff in L.A. That would be a big mistake. Because you never know what next season will bring, and there are no tomorrows in sports.

The Cardinals are the only team to beat the Seahawks in 2020, the only team that has actually rattled Russell Wilson in an end-game situation. They need to play for the big prize right here, right now.

The impending return of tight end Maxx Williams will help the running game. So will the return of Kenyan Drake, who will be back much sooner than anticipated when he left Sunday Night Football on the back of a cart. But Kingsbury needs to find the right allocation of carries between his two running backs and who deserves to be in the starting lineup. That starts with a heavy commitment to Chase Edmonds against the Dolphins.

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A checklist for the Arizona Cardinals securing a playoff berth