After 18 weeks, does anybody know what these Cardinals are made of?
I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t exciting on Sunday watching a back-and-forth Cardinals-Seahawks game while monitoring the 49ers-Rams epic on social media.
Of course, a Cardinals’ win mixed with a Rams’ loss and the NFC West Championship banner would be hung in Glendale.
But in what was another in a seemingly never-ending cycle of “typical Arizona sports” experiences, the Cardinals dropped the ball despite the other half of that equation coming through. Kliff Kingsbury’s team fell to a Seattle team playing for nothing but pride, 38-30.
The Cardinals, the team that had a 95.2% chance of winning the NFC West a month ago, are a Wild Card team. These Cardinals are the first team in NFL history to start 7-0 and finish with as many as six losses. Play-by-play announcer Dave Pasch called the Cardinals “an enigma,” and honestly that’s a perfect term to describe them.
That was present even on Sunday.
Twelve seconds into the game, the Cardinals led 7-0 after a strip sack of Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson by linebacker Chandler Jones allowed Zack Allen to return the ball for a touchdown. When the Cardinals have started fast, they’ve been nearly unbeatable this year. But they followed that up with a flaccid defensive performance and a sputtering offensive output for the rest of the first half.
Sunday offered wild momentum swings. After the flat first half, the Cardinals trailed only 17-10. They took the first drive of the second half right down the field, and Kyler Murray found James Conner on a 20-yard touchdown pass to tie the game at 17-17. Three plays later, Jalen Thompson picked off Russell Wilson and returned it to the 1-yard line. Conner punched it in two plays after that and all was right in the world.
Enter another massive flip in momentum.
The Cardinals’ defense actually forced a punt on Seattle’s next possession. Facing a 2nd-and-1 from their own 21, Conner got stuffed for no gain. Third-and-1…run it again, right? Wrong.
Murray threw incomplete to A.J. Green (more on this below) and had to punt it away.
Seattle pounced. Wilson capped a 72-yard drive with a 25-yard touchdown pass to Freddie Swain that exposed Arizona’s horrible pass defense. Next possession, the Cardinals started at their own 25-yard line. They went backward. Offensive line breakdowns coupled with Murray holding the ball too long led to 23 yards in losses on two sacks, and Andy Lee had to punt from his own end zone.
Under some pressure, Lee caught the snap, glanced at the Seattle player converging, and simply dropped the ball while in his natural punting motion. Once the ball hit the ground, it was pure slapstick. Lee picked it up, dropped it again, got crunched and fumbled. The Seahawks recovered and capitalized with Wilson scoring on a third-down scramble from four yards out.
The fourth quarter was all a tease. The Cardinals got within four after a Matt Prater field goal, and the defense responded to that by allowing Seattle’s Rashaad Penny to gash them up the middle on a 62-yard touchdown.
Let’s face it. Rush defense is a problem. The Cardinals were exposed there.
Their pass defense (especially in the first half) was loose and porous. Both lines of scrimmage were won clearly by Seattle.
I’m not sure Murray has ever had a game where he’s done less in terms of playmaking. In Week 18, his chemistry with Green is virtually non-existent. The duo has rarely appeared to be on the same page all season long.
And late in the game Sunday, Green again looked more interested in avoiding contact than he was in fighting for extra yardage in crunch time. If he didn’t come to Arizona with a glittery résumé filled with gaudy stats and seven Pro Bowl appearances, you wouldn’t know about his past by watching him play much of the year.
The disappointing finish to the regular season is in the rear view. The playoffs offer a clean slate. And maybe it’s a good thing that the playoff path will not start or go through State Farm, because Arizona hasn’t looked anything like a playoff team the last five times they’ve played in that building.
But the level of mystery surrounding this team as to which version will show up from week-to-week has crossed over into maddening territory.
I don’t even think they know what they are right now.