DAN BICKLEY

Resilient Cardinals get by Texans, set up Thursday showdown vs. Packers

Oct 24, 2021, 6:07 PM | Updated: 7:38 pm

Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray leaves the field after an NFL football game against the ...

Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray leaves the field after an NFL football game against the Houston Texans, Sunday, Oct. 24, 2021, in Glendale, Ariz. The Cardinals won 31-5. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

(AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

The NFL is unforgiving and unpredictable. The hardest games to win are the ones that look the easiest. The most dangerous opponents are often the bad teams that are still playing hard.

The Arizona Cardinals encountered and escaped both on Sunday. But not without some scar tissue and flop sweat.

Their 31-5 victory over the Houston Texans provided the essential outcome. The Cardinals have been the NFL’s only unbeaten team since Week 4 and keep winning despite a growing target on their backs. It also sets the stage for a home showdown against the 6-1 Green Bay Packers, easily one of the biggest games in the history of Thursday Night Football.

“Aaron Rodgers is a legendary player,” Markus Golden said. “But you have to be excited for games like that, especially on Thursday Night (Football) … We’re going to be ready for war.”

After a head-scratching first quarter Sunday, the game was yet another showcase for Kyler Murray, who ignited his team with an array of exquisite passes and dazzling footwork. He solidified his reputation as the league’s most dangerous player, especially on third-and-long and fourth down conversions.

Murray was also harassed, abused, sacked and hit more often than at any point in the season. Once, he was crushed for a safety. Once, he disappeared into the medical tent. Twice, he took blows to the helmet. Twice, he laid motionless on the field, scaring the wits out of the fan base.

The game illustrated Murray’s toughness. It was further testament to his emotional maturity, a player no longer marginalized by his own frustrations.

Still, the pounding he absorbed was exactly what the Cardinals wanted to avoid. Let’s hope he shows no lingering physical effects from this performance, especially with the Packers on deck.

“We didn’t protect as well as we would’ve liked,” head coach Kliff Kingsbury said. “But he had a good look in his eye the entire game …”

Still, the Cardinals offense shouldn’t have struggled so mightily. Not with the return of Kingsbury, who was cleared to return at 6:30 a.m. on Sunday and admitted feeling “funky” and as “disconnected” as he’s ever felt on the sidelines. And not with the debut of Zach Ertz, who is already a fan favorite, whose 47-yard touchdown reception on Sunday was the longest of his career.

But there was a fear a pass-catching tight end might negatively impact the Cardinals’ sturdiness upfront, at the point of attack. Coincidence or not, that certainly happened on Sunday, when the offensive line flopped and slogged, particularly guard Josh Jones.

Fortunately, the Texans offense posed no real threat, especially with Golden on a tear and Isaiah Simmons fast becoming a legitimate menace. The Arizona defense has allowed only 40 points in the second half all season, which speaks to coordinator Vance Joseph’s ability to make the necessary tweaks and adjustments.

“I don’t see a weak link anywhere on our defense,” Simmons said.

In the end, this victory speaks to internal resiliency.

Arizona’s worst performances of the season have come against two bottom-feeding teams, the Jaguars and Texans. And yet they eventually won both of those games by comfortable margins: 12 and 26 points, respectively.

Here’s more good news: The Cardinals have been at their very best against the very best, demolishing the Titans, the Rams and Browns on the road. And now comes the toughest test of all, a home game that might feel like a road game against the NFL’s reigning MVP.

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

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