INGLEWOOD, Calif. – It was J.J. Watt who, at the height of the Cardinals' play earlier this season in Cleveland, was caught by NFL Films noting on the sideline that "maybe we're just better" when it came to his team.
The veteran defensive lineman was equally blunt Monday night, quietly addressing the media after the Cardinals' once excellent season ended in disaster, a 34-11 Wild Card playoff loss to the Rams at SoFi Stadium that was never really in doubt.
"It was a massive failure," Watt said. "From what we were capable of doing, to what we showed we could do, to today. There is no other way to describe it."
Afterward, the Cardinals didn't have answers. They insisted they had been prepared, that they had been ready. But the troubles that plagued the Cardinals down the stretch – taking a team that was once 7-0 and 10-2 to a final 11-6 regular-season record – seemed to follow.
An offense that couldn't click. A defense that gave up too many big plays.
"It was embarrassing the way we came out," wide receiver Christian Kirk said. "When you come out the way we did, you're not going to win playoff games."
At one point, the Rams had 163 yards of offense and the Cardinals minus-3. Quarterback Kyler Murray, in his first playoff game, played arguably the poorest game of his career. At halftime, he had completed just 7-of-17 passes for 28 yards, two interceptions and a passer rating of only 9.3 as the Rams piled up a 21-0 lead.
Of the Cardinals' seven first-half possessions, five were three-and-outs and the other two were the picks.
"When you don't do anything right for two quarters, that's what's going to happen," coach Kliff Kingsbury said.
One of the interceptions was an ill-advised try to avoid a sack in his end zone for a safety; instead Murray tried to flip the ball to wide receiver Rondale Moore as he was being thrown down. The ball fluttered right to Rams cornerback David Long for a 3-yard return for a touchdown in a microcosm of the first half.
Murray finished 19 for 34 for 137 yards. But the damage had long been done.
"You know me," Murray said. "I put a lot on my shoulders. I put a lot on myself. My first game in the playoffs and to play the way I did, to play the way we did, it was disappointing."
Kingsbury, when asked directly about Murray's night, only said "overall as an offense, we were out of sync."
There was also a scary moment, well beyond what the scoreboard showed. Safety Budda Baker came up to make a tackle on Rams running back Cam Akers late in the third quarter, with Akers lowering his helmet at the end to create a hellacious helmet-to-helmet collision after which Baker went limp.
He was taken from the field on a stretcher and later transported to a hospital for further evaluation. Baker was alert and communicative and never lost feeling or movement in his body. He tweeted afterward he was OK.
Baker's health is paramount – Kingsbury said the reports he had gotten had been positive. But the health of the Cardinals going forward, particularly the way they have struggled down the stretch in each of the last two seasons after strong starts, is something to be monitored.
"We've got to keep looking at it," Kingsbury said. "Keep trying to find new ways to improve later on in the season, whatever that may be. That's definitely a priority of the offseason."
Kingsbury suggested more experience will help his team – "There is only one way to experience playoff football, and that's to go through it" – but with a number of key free agents this offseason, the roster is going to change once again.
When the Cardinals look back at the year, and the opportunity that had been there once upon a time, that stings.
"I'm going to be upset," linebacker Markus Golden said. "Let's be real, a lot of these guys, we're not going to play together anymore. I take all of that in."
"Go in the locker room, nobody is smiling, nobody is happy," Golden added. "You feel it, you feel the energy in the air. You feel bad, but you get back to work. That's the type of game this is. No one is going to feel sorry for you."