TEMPE, Ariz. — Through 30 minutes of football Sunday, the Arizona Cardinals trailed the Cleveland Browns by a score of 20-10 and looked rather poor in the process.
Though they had gained 225 net yards, the Cardinals lost a pair of fumbles and seemed to have no answer for the Josh McCown-led Browns offense.
When play resumed, as the picture quality on TV looked worse for many viewers around the Valley, the team itself looked better. Much, much better.
“[Bruce Arians] had a frank conversation with us,” defensive lineman Frostee Rucker said of what happened in the locker room at halftime. “He had a frank conversation with us about how we were playing in the first half. Obviously, we weren’t playing up to our standard and we had to turn that around quick. He barks and we listen.”
“The first half (we were) sluggish,” safety Tyrann Mathieu said. “I don’t know what it was, but it wasn’t our type of football. We got a mouthful from B.A. at halftime and a lot of guys stepped up in the second half and we started making plays.”
The Cardinals forced a Browns punt on the opening possession of the second half, then went on to score a touchdown four plays into their first drive of the third quarter. After forcing another punt the next time Cleveland had the ball, the Cardinals needed just four plays to score again, retaking a lead they would never relinquish.
To say a 34-20 game was a rout would be inaccurate, but the Cardinals really dominated the second half. The Browns tallied just 98 yards of net offense over the final two quarters, with the Cardinals forcing a pair of turnovers. The defense harassed and battered McCown while being stout against the run, and ended the only two drives that saw the Browns cross into Arizona territory with turnovers.
Arizona also did not punt in the second half, scoring on five of seven possessions (with the final one being a pair of kneel downs as time expired).
“We just pulled our heads out,” receiver Larry Fitzgerald said of what changed. “We played pretty crappy in the first half. First good drive started off, and it was just play after play after play not executing. Coach, we got in the locker room, he was pretty upset as he should have been. We were able to play much better defense. Came out third quarter, got a stop. We were able to make some plays down the field, got it going. It was great to see Troy (Niklas) in there a couple of times and started rolling from there.”
What exactly Arians said will not be known by the public, nor is it likely fit for public consumption. Suffice to say whatever it was, it achieved the desired result. However, the third-year coach downplayed what he told the team.
“Oh yeah,” he said when asked if too much is being made of it. “It wasn’t even close to when I was young.”
If there is something to take away from the game besides Arians’ apparent way with words, it is that the Cardinals are definitely better than the Browns. Their records a good judge of their talent, the road team found a way to struggle for most of 30 minutes and overcome a quartet of turnovers to win rather comfortably. It’s not exactly a recipe for consistent success, but in this case, the effort allowed the Cardinals to reach their bye week with a 6-2 record and a lead in the NFC West.
To some, needing to flip the proverbial switch in order to win could be considered a bad thing; to others, the ability to do exactly that could be seen as a positive. Then again, when a deficit seems to be more about what a team is doing to itself rather than what is being done to it, perhaps it makes sense that things could quickly and easily turn around.
“It’s very hard to flip it,” Arians said. “When you look at the tape, it was just a few plays in the first half. The turnover where we gave the ball on the 9-yard line. We gave up two great plays. We hold them to a 3rd-and-9 and we gave up a post pattern. We had good pressure. We fumbled the ball going in for a touchdown, but there were a lot of really good things in the first half. It was just a few plays like a 50-yard pass on an easy slant route to a running back, where you cannot give up inside leverage and bite on that fake and miss a tackle. It should have been a 10-yard gain at the worst and it was a 50-yard gain, so there were a few plays.
“It wasn’t a lackluster performance. It was just a few plays.”
The Cardinals have lost two games this season. There was a common thread throughout them, and that was turnovers along with penalties and missed opportunities inside the red zone. Sunday in Cleveland, Arizona seemed to be on its way to suffering a third defeat to a team that it probably should have beaten because of, well, turnovers.
But something changed for them at halftime, and as the team reaches the midway point of its season, there is a hope — maybe even a belief — that what you saw in the second half is more indicative of what kind of team the Cardinals really are.
“Six and two is not bad in the NFL,” Mathieu said. “Those two losses are games that we felt like we were in control of, and at some point in the game, we had an opportunity to win.
“Going forward, we need to start fast, play consistent for four quarters and win the turnover battle with these teams coming up on our schedule.”