For the Arizona Cardinals, it starts with finishing
TEMPE, Ariz. — As the saying goes, it’s not how you start, but how you finish.
For the 2015 Arizona Cardinals, those words could not be more pertinent.
At 4-2, the Cardinals are not exactly struggling. Yet, coming off a 25-13 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers, a game in which Arizona had significantly more yards, seven more first downs and led in time of possession, much of the conversation has centered around their inability to close the deal.
“The thing that we have to learn is to finish,” head coach Bruce Arians said. “We finish some games. We haven’t finished others and there are a few minutes in every game that we have a lull that we have to correct. You never know when those minutes are going to be. I think that’s something that we’ve targeted this week, making sure that we’re playing with passion and energy and focus for 60 minutes.”
Sixty minutes. The entire game. First, second, third and fourth quarters.
“You’re always focused on making every play as good as you possibly can, whether that’s in the first quarter, third quarter or fourth quarter, into the half, first drive of the second half,” quarterback Carson Palmer said. “Whatever it is, just focus on the little things and doing all the little things and everybody doing their job the way they’re taught to do it.”
In their four wins, the Cardinals have for the most part dominated in all facets of the game. They’ve run the ball effectively, passed at will, turned red zone opportunities into touchdowns, created turnovers on defense and stopped the run with aplomb.
In their two losses — to the Steelers and St. Louis Rams — the Cardinals combined to turn the ball over six times while scoring touchdowns on just two of nine trips inside the red zone.
Going forward, it’s about learning to finish off opponents instead of themselves.
Coming after a season in which the Cardinals made a habit of coming up with big plays late to win close games, it’s a bit surprising to see that pop up as an issue. Arians said it takes actually finishing a game to learn how to finish a game.
“Oh yeah, you’ve got to do it,” he said. “We’ve done it, but that was last year’s team. It has nothing to do with this team. The two chances we’ve had this year, we’ve failed.”
Safety Rashad Johnson agreed that it would be a mistake thinking that just because they were good in one-possession games last season they would be again this year.
“To think that we would be selling ourselves short,” he said. “This locker room and this team has too much character, has too many veteran players to live off of last year’s close-game wins, and to think that just because we won them a year ago we’re going to do it this year. We know it’s a new year, totally new team.”
In a way, maybe the struggles should not be surprising. Going into the season, a handful of publications and analysts felt the Cardinals would take a step back this season because the odds said they would not have as much success in close games as they did last year, when they went 5-0 in games decided by one score or less. That wasn’t necessarily meant to knock the team so much as shine light on the perceived luck it takes to consistently win games that are in the balance late.
The way to offset that would be to have fewer close games, which has essentially been the case in three of the Cardinals’ four victories. And even in their two losses, the Cardinals did have the ball late with a chance to take the lead.
“It speaks volumes about our football team,” Arians said of having that chance even when the team has not been at its best. “With all the things that happened in both ball games, we had the chance to win it with the ball in our hands. You can’t ask for any more than that.”
Except, of course, making the big play and winning the game. That would be good, too.
“Sometimes you win them, sometimes you lose them,” Palmer said. “I fully expect us to win the rest of those the rest of the way.”
How many more chances will the Cardinals have? It’s difficult to imagine them not getting at least one more opportunity at some point over the next 10 games. At least a few of those games will likely require one last scoring drive, a defensive stop or a special teams play, and it’s likely their ability to get the job done — or not — will have a say in their postseason hopes.
It will also give an idea of who the 2015 Arizona Cardinals are. Six games into the season, their identity remains a bit of a mystery.
“You want to do that early on, but I don’t think that this team has fully developed our identity,” receiver Larry Fitzgerald said. “I think we’re still working on that and I know it’s going to be an identity we can all be proud of because it’s going to be the one that we’ve all developed.
“So we have to be able to try to win some of those close games. There are going to be games that are going to come down to the stretch, and we want to be able to win them.”
Some stories for pre-game reading
The Cardinals relish the opportunity to play on Monday Night Football.
Former Cardinals defensive coordinator Todd Bowles is doing rather well in New York, writes Craig Morgan.
When they run, they win. When they don’t, well, you know. Craig Grialou reporting.
It was a bad interception, but Carson Palmer and the Cardinals have moved on from it.
The Cardinals have four guys in the early running for Comeback Player of the Year.
The Cardinals are hoping to learn from their latest loss.
A lack of focus? That’s a correctable problem, according to Dave Burns.
NFL.com’s Gregg Rosenthal says the Cardinals are one of the NFL’s most watchable teams.
New Cardinal Dwight Freeney does not think he did too bad in his 2015 debut.
-The 203 points scored by the Cardinals this season are the most in the NFL. Their +88 point differential is also tops in the league.
-This will be the Ravens’ first trip to University of Phoenix Stadium. They last visited the Cardinals in 2003, while the team was still playing at Sun Devil Stadium.
-With at least 100 rushing yards Monday Chris Johnson would become the first Cardinal to reach that mark three times in a season since Edgerrin James, who did so in 2007.
-Calais Campbell is one sack away from passing Eric Swann to move into fifth place on the franchise’s all-time sacks list. Speaking of sacks, defensive coordinator James Bettcher said he’s not too keen on trying to do too much as a coach to help ignite the team’s struggling pass rush.
“As a coach, when you try to insert yourself into the game too much, that’s when you screw it up,” he said.
-The Cardinals are likely to have just two healthy tight ends Sunday, so expect to see a lot of Jermaine Gresham and Troy Niklas. Should one of them get hurt, Earl Watford could be an option at the position if active for the game.