Safety Tyrann Mathieu picks off a pass and returns it 33 yards for a touchdown in the first quarter.
For nearly anyone else, it sounded preposterous. But belief can be suspended just enough for a player who has made a living doing the unimaginable.
In the first quarter of Sunday's dominant 47-7 victory over the 49ers, Tyrann Mathieu jumped a pass by Colin Kaepernick and returned the interception 33 yards for a touchdown. He saw a kid in the crowd angling for a souvenir, but being as it was the third-year Cardinals safety's first career NFL score, the ball went to the sideline as his memento.
No problem, Mathieu thought. I'll do it a second time.
"I was actually hoping to get to the end zone again," Mathieu said. "I saw the little guy up there and he looked like he really wanted a ball."
It wasn't to be on this day, but Mathieu sure came close. He picked off Kaepernick again late in the second quarter and began weaving his way through 49ers. He was soon cornered and went down after a 17-yard return. After the play, he found the child and gave him his souvenir anyway.
This was the play-making star that had been missing in 2014. Mathieu was a Heisman Trophy finalist in college due to his highlight reel of game-changing plays, and despite doubts about it translating on the NFL level, he showed up early and often as a rookie in 2013.
An injury is what finally slowed him, as an ACL tear ended Mathieu's rookie season early and made last year's slow return a frustrating one. It was clear throughout training camp that Mathieu was finally back healthy and primed for a head-turning comeback, and he announced it in a big way against San Francisco.
"You practice and practice so hard," Mathieu said. "Especially me, coming off the knee injury. Most people probably didn't think I was coming back to perform."
Mathieu not only had two interceptions against the 49ers, but added five tackles, including one for loss. The defense has seen many different players step up, but maybe none bigger than Mathieu during the undefeated three-game start.
He has all sorts of sizzle on game day, but it's his work outside of the spotlight which makes him so good. Coach Bruce Arians said Mathieu is always studying film to learn the habits of opponents, which is deadly when added to his natural talent.
"He's one of the most prepared guys I've ever seen," Arians said. "When you're prepared and you have instincts, it's a pretty good combination."
Mathieu had an idea what the 49ers would do, as he and the rest of the secondary pounced in passing situations, picking off Kaepernick four times. On the interception return for a touchdown, he seemingly glided over and picked off the throw without any extra effort.
"We knew going into this game that the focus for them was to run the football," Mathieu said. "Their passing game has been simplified so much. It was easy for us to anticipate routes, get some good breaks on the ball."
Cornerback Patrick Peterson saw Mathieu at his play-making best at LSU and with the Cardinals in 2013. He was ready for another chapter in that book against the 49ers.
"A hell of a game by the kid today," Peterson said. "I told him I was very proud of him. You see that note right there? 'A lot of people are great, but only a few are legendary.' I told him, 'Let's be legendary today.' And he was legendary."