SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- The offense took a little time, but Kyler Murray was, well, Kyler Murray. DeAndre Hopkins was DeAndre Hopkins.
And the defense returned to the scene of a place where they couldn't hold a lead late last season and were put in the same situation – only to make their plays when needed.
The result was an emotional 24-20 win for the Cardinals against the 49ers Sunday in a weird yet satisfying season opener in front of nobody at Levi's Stadium. The wildfire-impacted air quality wasn't good but good enough to play. The absent crowd was noticeable – "It'll take some getting used to," Kliff Kingsbury said – but it also made it easy to hear the bellows and yelps of celebration from the Cardinals after Byron Murphy's game-clinching pass breakup.
"I was just talking to Budda (Baker) about that," Murray said. "It was almost the same situation (as last year), and sitting on the sideline it just felt different. I felt we were going to come out on top."
It was the first time the Cardinals won in Week 1 since 2015, a year the Cards ended up in the NFC Championship. No one is making those kinds of bold predictions for this team, but to topple the reigning NFC champs on the road is exactly what they wanted to do.
Hopkins was spectacular, piling up a career-best 14 catches for 151 yards, and his 33-yard catch-and-run set up Kenyan Drake's 1-yard touchdown run that provided the game-winning points. And that was after a first quarter where he and Murray weren't always on the same wavelength.
"It feels real sensation right now," Hopkins said. "I'm just a small piece of this puzzle.
"Once the offense got going, I knew it'd be hard to stop us."
Murray didn't have his best game passing – 26-for-40 for 230 yards, a touchdown and an interception – but he made the plays in the fourth quarter when needed. His legs provided a huge boost in the rally, scrambling for time and yards, finishing with 91 on 13 carries, including a highlight-worthy 22-yard scamper for a touchdown.
Murray actually had 100 yards on his first 11 carries, before "losing" nine yards on kneeldowns – "We'll count (the 100)," Murray joked -- and added that almost all of his runs just came in context of the defense getting out of pass rush lanes.
"The guy was running today," Baker said. "Kyler did his thing. He did what God blessed him with."
There were plenty of hiccups. The offense's slow start. Rookie linebacker Isaiah Simmons showing his inexperience getting beat on Raheem Mostert's 76-yard catch-and-run touchdown early in the game. Kicker Zane Gonzalez missed two field goals, albeit he did drill a career-best 56-yarder right before halftime. Even Kingsbury was hard on himself.
"It wasn't pretty early," Kingsbury said. "Players were rusty, I was rusty with my playcalling."
But the Cards stuck around. Down 10-0, linebacker Ezekiel Turner blocked the first punt of his career that set his offense up at the San Francisco 10-yard line, leading to a Murray-to-Chase Edmonds 10-yard touchdown pass one play in. The defense also made a huge goal line stand, with Jordan Phillips, Devon Kennard and De'Vondre Campbell teaming to stuff the 49ers on fourth down and preventing points in the second quarter.
"We can come together even more," Baker said, praising the communication and lack of cliques. "This defense, we all love each other. … We are all together."
Jimmy Garappolo still threw a couple TD passes, but he was inaccurate some of the time. Tight end George Kittle had only four catches, and none in the second half. The Cardinals held the Niners to 2-for-11 on third downs, and one came on a penalty.
Yet the Niners still had a third-and-5 at the Arizona 16 with less than a minute left, pushing to come from behind as they had done to the Cardinals last year at Levi's. In 2019, the Cards gave up a TD pass. This time, they targeted Murphy twice.
Once he broke up the pass – with Garappolo under pressure – in the end zone. The second he broke up just beyond the first-down marker.
"I played my leverage, the ball came, and I just made the play," Murphy said matter-of-factly.
Early last week, Kingsbury had put up a stat in front of his team, that the Cardinals were 3-12-1 in September since 2016. The last time they had won in September was 2017. His message was clear, that the Cardinals needed to prepare themselves to have a better start to the season.
Now, with the home opener against a 1-0 Washington team next week, they own the start they coveted.
"I knew we had something special from the day I walked in the building," Hopkins said.
But, he added, "we didn't win a Super Bowl yet. So it's back to the drawing board."
Images from the season opener in Santa Clara