The NFC West might just be the best division, which sounds good until you find yourself in last place.
But the Cardinals, coming off their bye week as they head into Sunday’s home game against the Rams, feel like more than just a 3-7-1 team preparing to play their final five games of the season. That’s in large part because of quarterback Kyler Murray, and the offensive ingenuity of coach Kliff Kingsbury.
It’s also in part to two close losses to the 49ers among their most recent three games, and the knowledge that with three NFC West games remaining – two against the Rams – how the Cardinals finish will provide a prism through which the team will be viewed compared to their divisional brethren.
“Really, we measure ourselves against any team,” safety Budda Baker said. “But that’s our division.
“I feel like we have one of the best divisions in the league. The Seahawks are always good, the Rams are good as well and the 49ers, they had been down and now they are best in the conference. Now we, as the Cardinals, have to take that extra step.”
The NFL isn’t horseshoes or hand grenades, and making the 49ers sweat a couple of games doesn’t mean much in the big picture. The Cardinals were also handled fairly easily by the Seahawks in their early-season meeting.
Yet the Cardinals did play the 49ers – who reside atop of the NFC with a 10-1 record – better than most, and quarterback Kyler Murray is the only QB to post a 100-plus passer rating against them. And he did it twice.
Murray’s success, and the fact the Rams were hammered in Baltimore, 45-6, last Monday night, are big reasons some have picked the Cardinals to topple the defending NFC champion Rams (6-5) this weekend.
“I’m sure they wish they could’ve played Tuesday morning,” Kingsbury said of the Rams. “They’re a prideful group. They were in the Super Bowl 10 months ago. We’ll get their best shot, and we know that. They can play a lot better than (Monday).”
Kingsbury has some insight to the Rams, given his relationship over the years with Los Angeles coach Sean McVay. But there are other areas where the Rams, who started the season 3-0, have faltered that doesn’t take any inside information.
After lighting up the NFL in 2018 offensively, the Rams are middle of the pack in yards and points, and have tumbled to 24th in the league in rushing (90.7 yards a game) after being a top-five team a year ago. Like the Cardinals with David Johnson, the Rams have not gotten the production out of top back Todd Gurley they had expected.
Kingsbury waves away the idea NFL defenses have caught up to McVay’s offensive ingenuity – “I don’t buy that at all” – and injuries to receivers Brandin Cooks and Cooper Kupp during the season have not helped, although both are back and playing now.
In the context of the powerful NFC West, McVay looks at the Cardinals and sees a team that is “right there,” a notion that would be bolstered by a Cardinals’ win Sunday.
“They’re right on track,” said McVay, whose own team is 0-2 in the division with one loss each to Seattle and San Francisco. “You just look at, especially over the last couple weeks, the team that’s tied for the best record in the NFL, they went wire-to-wire with them two times.
“I don’t care what the record says. When you flip the tape on, I couldn’t be more impressed with all three phases of this team and the way these guys continue to compete, and I think they’re in a great position to continue to get better. They’re going to be a really good team for years to come.”
The Cardinals still need to prove it on the scoreboard. Rams quarterback Jared Goff failed to throw a touchdown pass in November, but now he’ll face the last-place passing defense in the NFL. Kingsbury is trying to find a good way to deploy three healthy running backs for the first time – Kenyan Drake, Johnson, Chase Edmonds – and he’ll have to do it against a Rams’ defensive line in which stud tackle Aaron Donald makes a mess for the Cards when they meet.
The Rams also have the knowledge they have dominated the last four meetings, shutting out the Cardinals twice in four blowouts.
Given that the Cards still have three NFC West games left of the five on the schedule, the measuring stick will be out in December.
“I think every coach will look around their division and see what we have to do to beat those teams,” Kingsbury said.