DAN BICKLEY

Cardinals leave Los Angeles with something bigger than a win

Oct 3, 2021, 4:41 PM | Updated: Oct 4, 2021, 3:16 pm

The Arizona Cardinals left Los Angeles with a big “L” on Sunday:

Legitimacy.

Their 37-20 demolition of the Los Angeles Rams leaves no doubt. Their offense is unstoppable and their defense is full of playmakers. They are the only unbeaten team remaining in the NFC. Anything seems possible with ascension of Kyler Murray, even a Lombardi Trophy.

Nobody in football is more demoralizing or dangerous. Defensive players can do everything right against Murray. And he still makes them wrong.

Of all the great plays the Cardinals quarterback executed on Sunday, the most profound moment came when he scrambled for a first down on 3rd-and-16, even though the Rams had a designated spy who read the play perfectly. Murray still made him look foolish.

Those are the plays that carve the heart out of an opponent, and they are happening with regularity.

Murray’s maturity and comfort level are staggering. Once, everyone obsessed over his height, a player officially listed at 5-foot-10. Now, it’s clear his small stature is what makes him so special, so elusive and so aesthetically thrilling. He will do for a generation of young quarterbacks what Steve Nash and Steph Curry once did for undersized basketball players.

Murray’s dismantling of the Rams makes him the clear MVP frontrunner at the moment, and he gives the Valley four teams capable of winning a championship, along with the Suns, Mercury and Rising.

Murray shares a lot with the Suns. He wears No. 1, just like Devin Booker. He is a diminutive star at the sport’s most important position, just like Chris Paul. His accuracy as a passer is like Deandre Ayton’s unfathomable shooting percentage.

Early on Sunday, the Rams gashed the Cardinals with their running attack, just like the previous two opponents. But in his third year as a professional, Murray’s control and command of the game was breathtaking. And as the Cardinals stacked touchdowns, the Rams were forced to play from behind.

Meanwhile, questions resurfaced about Matthew Stafford’s ability to win the biggest of games. He was intercepted once; had a second pick negated by a roughing the passer penalty on Isaiah Simmons; and was not at all in synch with his band of receivers. Certainly not like Murray, who completed passes to seven different receivers and it made it look effortless.

The performance ended the Sean McVay reign of dominance, a head coach who had won all previous eight matchups against the Cardinals. The star-studded crowd at SoFi Stadium expected carnage, and were stunned to see it happening to their own team. This was the second signature win of the young season for Arizona, and a much-needed statement game against the Rams.

There might be lingering skeptics in Arizona. Kliff Kingsbury’s teams have a history of fading badly down the stretch, a trend that dates all the way back to his days at Texas Tech. There is a fear that his system doesn’t evolve over the course of a long season, allowing defense to catch up along the way. Last season was no different, when Murray’s Cardinals squandered a 6-3 record and missed the playoffs entirely.

But this team feels different. Kingsbury is no longer on a hot seat, earning a big chunk of credibility on Sunday. The offense is moving vertically and not operating inside a small, sorry rectangle. Their kicking game ranks among the best in the NFL. They are getting solid contributions from multiple running backs and their tight end. The secondary is far exceeding expectations. Judging by their on-field demeanor against the Rams, there is a powerful belief growing inside the Cardinals locker room.

Just wait until the Cardinals rank No. 1 in some expert’s power poll, pumping crazy amounts of oxygen into the fan base.

This is what happens when a quarterback declares stardom in the NFL, lifting everyone in his vicinity. Murray seems sturdier this season, physically and emotionally. He seems unflappable and unbeatable.

And you can’t help but wonder what a ring-less Larry Fitzgerald is thinking at the moment, or if his absence was necessary to make all of this a possibility.

Reach Bickley at dbickley@arizonasports.com. Listen to Bickley & Marotta weekdays from 6 a.m. – 10 a.m. on 98.7 FM Arizona’s Sports Station.

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Cardinals leave Los Angeles with something bigger than a win