DAN BICKLEY

Cardinals survive Jaguars amid biggest test of adversity in 2021

Sep 26, 2021, 2:03 PM | Updated: 2:51 pm
Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray scores a touchdown against the Jacksonville Jaguars on t...

Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray scores a touchdown against the Jacksonville Jaguars on the 1-yard run during the first half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Sept. 26, 2021, in Jacksonville, Fla. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)

(AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)

The most painful loss in Cardinals history occurred in the state of Florida, when momentum swung wildly on the final play of the first half.

Fortunately for Kliff Kingsbury, Sunday’s game did not become a distant cousin of Super Bowl XLIII.

The Cardinals survived a dangerous afternoon on the road, beating the winless Jaguars, 31-19. Their first 3-0 start since 2015 was secured behind a 24-point second half; two homegrown stars (Byron Murphy Jr., Christian Kirk); another solid performance from Kyler Murray; and a team that once again responded well to adversity.

The latter showed up in a big way on the final play of the first half, when Kingsbury chose to attempt a historic 68-yard field goal. The decision was dizzying and plausible given Matt Prater’s leg strength. It also carried significant risk:

It was 82 degrees in the Florida panhandle with 46% humidity. The kick was predictably short. Aided by a field suddenly populated with big, slow linemen, a Jacksonville returner caught the ball and raced 109 yards to the other end zone.

The decision tapped into our worst fears. Namely, that Arizona has enough talent but not enough head coach to win meaningful games in the NFL.

If Cardinals players feel the same way, they didn’t show it in the second half. James Conner scored two touchdowns. Murphy Jr. continued his ascent with two interceptions and a touchdown. And the two aging stars – J.J. Watt and A.J. Green – made their biggest impact to date.

After the Jaguars steamrolled the line of scrimmage with eight consecutive rushing plays, taking a nine-point lead with 19 minutes left in the game, the Cardinals were officially on upset alert. But after a decisive touchdown from the offense, Watt busted through the line, turning a Jacksonville trick play into a pick six for Murphy Jr., handing a giant reprieve to Kingsbury.

Kingsbury has done some good things on his path to redemption. The offense looks more vertical and more dangerous. By design or quarterback improvisation, the ball is being shared among all playmakers. He is showing a better touch at deploying a tight end and multiple running backs.

There are also recurring issues of penalties and clock management, and fair or not, Kingsbury would’ve been vilified had the Cardinals not scored the final 21 points on Sunday.

This game was supposed to be a layup, a free-throw, a three-foot putt. It was a rare chunk of soft candy before the Cardinals embark on a three-game gauntlet against the Rams, the 49ers and the Browns.

Just imagine if they had lost on Sunday. Imagine the calls for Kingsbury’s job and the distractions a loss to Jacksonville would’ve caused the organization.

Skeptics will say the Cardinals have been lucky in 2021, prevailing in Week 2 when the Vikings kicker choked on a game-winning field goal and improving to 3-0 only because they were playing one of the worst teams in the NFL.

Truth is, this game will be long forgotten in a matter of days. Kingsbury’s good fortune might be proof that his luck is changing for the better. Because no matter how ugly it looked at times on Sunday and how tenuous Kingsbury’s status seems in 2021, there is an inviolate rule in the harsh world of professional football:

You never have to apologizing for winning on the road.

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