Themes from the Arizona Cardinals’ failed playoff-clinching opportunities

Dec 24, 2021, 7:02 AM

Arizona Cardinals wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins (10) is surrounded after he is unable to make a cat...

Arizona Cardinals wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins (10) is surrounded after he is unable to make a catch between Los Angeles Rams inside linebacker Ernest Jones (50), free safety Taylor Rapp (24), cornerback Darious Williams, second from right, and defensive back David Long (22) during the second half of an NFL football game Monday, Dec. 13, 2021, in Glendale, Ariz. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)

(AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)

Four times in the Kliff Kingsbury era, or twice in each of the past two years, the Arizona Cardinals have stepped onto the field where a win would have helped thrust them into the playoffs. All four times, they’ve lost.

Arizona faces a fifth such scenario Saturday against the Indianapolis Colts, a Christmas primetime game with a 6:15 p.m. kickoff on 98.7 FM Arizona’s Sports Station.

Before we get into common themes behind the why Arizona lost in four previous tries, let’s quickly recap each of those games:

Saturday, Dec. 26, 2020 (Week 16): 49ers 20, Cardinals 12: Needing to win one of the final two games, Arizona (8-6) caught third-string quarterback C.J. Beathard and an injury-riddled Niners squad.

The Chicago Bears were also in the Wild Card running and expected to split their final two games against the Jacksonville Jaguars and Green Bay Packers. While a Cardinals win on the penultimate game for 2020 wouldn’t give Kingsbury’s team a 100% shot at the postseason in the moment, the Bears’ finish played out as expected, in hindsight making it a clinching opportunity.

Sunday, Jan. 3, 2021 (Week 17): Rams 18, Cardinals 7: This one was fairly straightforward by the time the weekend came: The Cardinals winning would cement a playoff bid, though the Bears’ results against the Packers would swing which seed they were. It didn’t matter.

Facing backup and former Arizona Hotshots quarterback John Wolford in his his first NFL start, Arizona lost Kyler Murray to an ankle injury earlier, turned to the only other quarterback on the roster in Chris Streveler and then saw Murray return in the second half — too little too late.

Monday, Dec. 13, 2021 (Week 14): Rams 30, Cardinals 23: Matthew Stafford nailed big-time throws as his star receivers in Cooper Kupp and Odell Beckham Jr. stepped up on Monday Night Football.

Sunday, Dec. 19, 2021 (Week 15): Lions 30, Cardinals 12: Failed execution in the red zone, turnovers and porous run defense against the unheralded Detroit back Craig Reynolds allowed the then 1-11-1 Lions to build a lead and break away.

So what’ve been the themes in those four losses?

The opposing QBs, regardless of reputation, have shined

The opposing quarterbacks have gone like so: Beathard, Wolford, Stafford and Jared Goff.

Two backups last year, two starters in the past two games this year.

Combined, they’ve gone 79-of-116 (68%) for an average of 229 yards. Their touchdown-to-interception ratio is 9-to-1, as the Cardinals defense has produced 2.5 sacks per game.

While the Stafford and Goff performances this year are a bit more understandable considering they are starters, Arizona did allow Stafford to produce his second-best passer rating (139.7) out of 14 games this year. Goff’s was the best of his Lions career at 139.7.

Kyler Murray has taken his lumps

Comparatively, Murray hasn’t been healthy or on his game in any of the four playoff-clinching opportunities.

He got dinged late against the 49ers last season but after recovering enough to start the week after against the Rams, an ankle injury knocked him out early. Murray would return later on to finish 8-of-11 while taking two sacks.

He’s got a career 93.7 passer rating but hasn’t posted above a 73 in any of the four games unless you count that very limited appearance against the Rams to end 2020.

Overall, the turnover ratio is 3-7 against the Cardinals in the four games. Murray has thrown four interceptions to one touchdown without a rushing score in the four clinching opportunities.

Chase Edmonds hasn’t been healthy or utilized

While the Cardinals had Kyler Murray injured, Edmonds has also been a less-than-featured option for several reasons. A hip injury knocked him out of the first of the four missed chances, and while he was active in the 2020 finale against the Rams, he took three carries for -3 yards in total.

This season, Edmonds missed the Week 14 game against Los Angeles before he was activated for this past week’s loss to Detroit.

He took six carries to James Conner’s eight and put up 53 yards with a long of 23, but the deficit for Arizona kept him from becoming a featured piece. Edmonds saw only one target in the passing game against the Lions.

He’s averaged 5.9 yards per carry, and his health could make a difference against the Colts on Saturday.

Red zone troubles

Blame a lack of execution or poor play-calling, but it’s likely both.

Arizona is 3-for-13 in red zone situations over the four clinching games. That is weighed down by an 0-for-4 showing last week against the Lions.

In the 49ers game last year, Arizona ran eight plays inside the 15-yard line in order to score its only touchdown. Otherwise, Arizona got a 27-yard field goal after a strong game-opening drive and in the second half saw Murray throw a pick at the San Francisco 14-yard line.

The Cardinals also had a blocked field goal in the 2020 season finale against Los Angeles.

Two weeks back against Rams, Murray threw an interception on 2nd-and-goal at the Ram’s 4-yard line — a back-breaking play with Arizona trailing by only seven points early in the third quarter.

Then on Sunday, trailing 10-0 in the second quarter, the Cardinals went for it on third and fourth downs from the Lions’ 3-yard line and saw Murray target A.J. Green and Antoine Wesley in traffic.

To open the second half, a strong run-heavy drive stalled at the Lions’ 11 with another third-down incompletion from Murray to Green. Not much later, at the Detroit 10, Murray fumbled and then threw an incomplete pass to put out the fuse on another promising possession.

Arizona will need to be better in the red zone to stamp a playoff berth this weekend.

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Themes from the Arizona Cardinals’ failed playoff-clinching opportunities