After ups and downs, Cardinals embrace last chance to earn playoff bid

Dec 30, 2020, 4:40 PM
San Francisco 49ers fullback Kyle Juszczyk (44) makes a catch as Arizona Cardinals middle linebacke...

San Francisco 49ers fullback Kyle Juszczyk (44) makes a catch as Arizona Cardinals middle linebacker Jordan Hicks (58) defends during the first half of an NFL football game, Saturday, Dec. 26, 2020, in Glendale, Ariz. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)

(AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)

It seems the Arizona Cardinals did not ride the wave of disappointment and then hope in the 24 hours after their Saturday loss to the San Francisco 49ers.

They were just upset about blowing an opportunity.

The defeat knocked them out of full control of their playoff futures. But when Sunday’s games came to an end, a win by the Seattle Seahawks over Arizona’s next opponent, the Los Angeles Rams, saved the Cardinals from needing the Green Bay Packers to beat the Chicago Bears this week.

Now, Arizona’s path to the postseason is as easy as beating the Rams Sunday at SoFi Stadium.

“I don’t think as a team we necessarily knew what needed to happen to give us the opportunities,” guard Justin Pugh said Tuesday. “I was watching the Rams-Seattle game. That’s when I realized that (a Seattle win helped Arizona).”

The Cardinals, in a way, were blinded by their own missed chance to further secure a playoff spot. Now, they get a final win-or-go-home game.

Arizona faces a Rams team without its starting quarterback (Jared Goff), leading receiver (Cooper Kupp) — and potentially without its top two running backs (Darrell Henderson and Cam Akers). Coming off their loss against a 49ers team that had a slew of backups playing, the Cardinals aren’t too concerned about the the injuries changing the look of their opponent.

Asked if the Arizona is digging up film of Rams quarterback John Wolford, who is set to make his NFL regular season debut in place of Goff, Cardinals linebacker Jordan Hicks pointed the focus back on his Cardinals.

“It’s really the same situation we’re at needing this win. I imagine that they probably wouldn’t have to change much, especially with (head coach Sean) McVay being who he is — his ability to call great games, the offense that they have,” Hicks said.

“We really need to focus on what we need to do.”

Hicks signed with Arizona two offseasons ago believing in the vision of head coach Kliff Kingsbury and defensive coordinator Vance Joseph. He was one of the leaders to preach about the Cardinals, talented as they are, needing to learn how to grind out wins.

At an inconsistent 8-7, that is obviously still a work-in-progress. Still, there have been moments. The Hail Murray against the Buffalo Bills during a 1-4 stretch this year is less about a crazy play by Kyler Murray and DeAndre Hopkins and more about the Cardinals’ fight, Hicks said.

Rolling over the Dallas Cowboys in Monday Night Football showed Arizona could perform under the brightest of lights.

Just two games ago against the Philadelphia Eagles, all three phases for the Cardinals made plays to secure a tough win over a feisty team led by a talented rookie quarterback, Jalen Hurts.

Of course, losses to bottom-dwelling teams like Detroit, Carolina and San Francisco are among the missed chances spanning the season.

“We’re right where we want to be,” Murray said Wednesday. “Obviously, everything that’s happened this year … we still got an opportunity. I think everybody should embrace it and leave it all out on the field Sunday.”

The Cardinals want to fix their mistakes — a poor run defense of late and a disjointed offense for a team that leads the NFL in penalties. They are reflecting on themselves, for sure.

Pugh joked that not having the extra worry of scoreboard-watching the Packers-Bears game may give their hearts “a little bit of a break.”

With that, he said it’s important to view a must-win game — or must-tie game if the Bears lose to the Packers — as an opportunity not to be taken for granted.

“It’s been the story of our year, the ups and the downs,” Pugh said. “I’m thankful to be here. Not a lot of teams in the NFL right now have the opportunity to make the playoffs if they win a game this weekend. Despite everything that happened before this week, it doesn’t matter at this point.”

Maybe the Cardinals did not get here cleanly as they or fans would like.

But they are grateful they’re still here, with everything to play for.

“There’s no holding back,” said Murray, who said he is playing Sunday after banging up his leg on his last play against San Francisco on Saturday. “We lose, I’ll be home chillin’. My leg, I’m fine.”

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