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Cardinals Have The Look Of A Playoff Contender

Underlying metrics back up promising win-loss record

WR Christian Kirk's emergence has made the Cardinals' offense more dangerous the past two games.
WR Christian Kirk's emergence has made the Cardinals' offense more dangerous the past two games.

In a six-game sample, paper tigers can be built, only to be thrashed in the final 10 games of an NFL season.

The Cardinals, though, seem to have the bite to go with their growl.

While proof will come with the uptick in competition the rest of the way, there are myriad metrics pointing toward the team's staying power in 2020.

The Cardinals are not only 4-2 but they have a plus-54 point-differential, which is second-best in the NFC and fourth in the NFL. They are up to No. 10 in Football Outsiders’ team efficiency, which factors in the strength of opponents.

There are not many areas in which they have gotten particularly lucky – which can often predate regression – and their three victories of 15 points or more are an important clue of the team's overall talent.

The Cardinals pulled themselves out of the mud with a promising debut season under coach Kliff Kingsbury in 2019, but with only five victories, it was fair to wonder if they could jump to playoff contenders in 2020.

When Kingsbury spoke with General Manager Steve Keim this offseason, they did not consider building slowly in Year 2, instead making aggressive moves to flank burgeoning star quarterback Kyler Murray with complementary pieces.

"We feel like we have a special talent in Kyler – and we have a long way to go as an organization to get where we want to get – but we wanted to field the best team possible," Kingsbury said. "That was our only real thought going into this offseason."

The Cardinals were expected to be an offensive dynamo this year, but their calling card has been balance.

The defense has exceeded expectations under Vance Joseph, as it is second in the NFL in points allowed and ranked No. 9 in efficiency. Takeaways were in short supply through five games, but that was rectified with four against the Cowboys. The group has been fantastic situationally, seventh in third-down defense and second in red zone touchdown percentage.

"I couldn't be more impressed by V.J., and that group of coaches and that group of players," Kingsbury said. "With the changes Steve made personnel-wise, bringing in some really talented pieces, they've really come together quickly in a strange season. We know we have some great offenses ahead of us, but when you watch the way they're playing -- with physicality, they took the ball away four times last night, the way they are flying around the football field and having fun doing so, it's a fun culture to be around."

The offense hasn't been perfect, but it's been a lot better of late. Murray threw for 380 yards in a 30-10 blowout of the Jets, and despite his accuracy issues against the Cowboys, the team scored 38 points and racked up 438 total yards with zero turnovers.

The rushing attack was phenomenal in Dallas, and Murray connected on a back-breaking 80-yard touchdown to Christian Kirk late in the first half. Even when he is not playing splendidly, Murray's skillset makes defending the Cardinals a tough task.

"The playbook is really limitless, because you can call your QB run stuff, you can call your dropback stuff, you can call your deep throws, and he has the mental capacity and the ability physically to do it all," Kingsbury said.

The Cardinals' defense may not remain No. 2 in points allowed all season, but even if it drops a bit, the offense has room to make up for it. The Cardinals have a high floor because of their rushing attack, which is on pace to set a franchise-record in yards per carry for the second consecutive year.

When the passing game is clicking, defenses are in a bind.

"We still have not hit our stride offensively, and more than anything, that's encouraging," Kingsbury said. "We've got to hit it here soon, because we've got a great Seattle team coming in and scoring a bunch of points."

There are legitimate questions about a team like the Browns, who are 4-2 but with a negative-24 point-differential, or the 5-1 Bears, who have won every game by one possession.

The Cardinals do not have the same underlying concerns, and while a good start is just that, there is nothing to suggest this is a desert mirage.