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Let The NFC West Battle Commence, And Friday Before The Rams

Kyler Murray said this is the kind of game players love to play. It's certainly the kind of game fans love to watch. And the Cardinals have put themselves in a position where there will be a lot of eyeballs on the result at SoFi Stadium Sunday. On the surface, yes, it's the 3-0 Cardinals against the 3-0 Rams, and the winner will be by itself in first place in a very difficult NFC West. But we all know it's more than that.

Kliff Kingsbury and Kyler have not been around for the entirety of the eight-game losing streak to the Rams. Heck, when it started (that fateful night in London in 2017, RIP Carson Palmer's final season) Kyler was ramping up for a pro baseball career just hoping to get one good year of college football, and Kliff was busy trying to right the ship at Texas Tech.

But it's their burden now, with four losses and one coming in the win-or-go home finale last year. As good as the Rams are playing right now – and it's damn good – the Cards are playing pretty well too. Kyler is playing the best of his career (especially if you can eliminate the first drive of the second half, but more on that in a minute).

This is not a must-win. But with another NFC West game next week home against the 49ers, and then a trip to Cleveland, this is a stretch that will say a lot about the 2021 Cardinals. Getting swept by a division opponent just isn't going to work for a team trying to go where the Cards are trying to go.

-- For the first time, the Cardinals have piled up at least 400 yards and 30 points in each of their first three games. They have 103 points, tied with the Bucs for most in the league (the Rams are next with 95). Of the four losses since Kliff/Kyler arrived, yes, two times the Cards had only seven points, but the first was Murray's rookie year and that awful performance after the bye, and the other one Chris Streveler had to play QB because of Murray's ankle injury. They scored 24 and 28 against the Rams in the other two losses, and the Cards should be able to score. The question in these matchups has always been can they slow the Rams' offense?

-- Cooper Kupp is tearing up the league after three games as a (mostly) inside receiver. Byron Murphy is the Cards' best cover guy and excels inside himself. Fascinating potential matchup to me.

-- Speaking of Murphy, he was talking about playing the Falcons when he was forced into the lineup in 2019 as a rookie when Patrick Peterson was suspended and Robert Alford injured, and Julio Jones was his assignment at times.

"I remember just before that game, I looked at their sideline and said, 'That's a big dude. I've got to come ready to play,' " Murphy recalled. "That matchup was like, 'Wow, this is the NFL.' "

Now Murphy has a Defensive Player of the Week award and helped shut down Jones in Week 1. The Cards need him to shine Sunday, against Kupp or DeSean Jackson or Robert Woods or whoever he might be on.

-- Given that left guard Justin Pugh practiced fully Friday, I'd guess that, provided he has no setbacks (and backs can be tricky) he will be able to play. We will see about Justin Murray.

-- Weirdest stat of the young season: Kyler Murray has thrown an interception on the Cardinals' first drive of the second half in each of the three games. Not ideal. But Murray has also led the Cardinals to a score on the drive immediately following those picks:

  • The Willie Mays TD catch of Christian Kirk at Tennessee
  • A.J. Green's quick screen TD versus Minnesota
  • A Matt Prater field goal at Jacksonville

It's safe to say coming out in the second half and throwing a pick against the Rams has a chance to end much worse.

-- Since Kingsbury became the head coach in 2019, no NFL has had greater success at converting fourth downs than the Cardinals, who are at 68.8 percent (33 of 48) and who are 3-for-3 this season. The league continues to trend to more and more fourth-down attempts, because the numbers often say it's worth it. That's something Kingsbury has subscribed to since he first took his coaching job at Texas Tech.

"Where I was at previously, you had to take some risks, had to take some chances to compete week in and week out," Kingsbury said. "We got in touch with some analytics people we really trusted on fourth down stuff and incorporated that. We have just carried it on.

"There are some times when it seems uber-aggressive, but you are just playing the probability, and at the end of the day the final say is on me. It comes down to my gut and you have to make the decision."

-- Right tackle-or-maybe-guard Josh Jones got to his junior year of high school before realizing his future might be brighter in football than basketball. So he was asked who his starting five might be in the Cardinals' locker room (coincidentally, this was a subject that came up in our Cardinals Underground podcast earlier this week.)

-- Jones didn't hesitate in saying D-Hop was his point guard, raving how good Hop is on the court (I mean, the man did play briefly for Clemson in college.). Perhaps fellow offensive lineman Josh Miles too. Jones included himself but said he wouldn't be a power forward but a 3-point shooting small forward. So someone said he was like the Suns' Jae Crowder, and Jones shook his head. "I'm more like LeBron," he said. "I'm facilitating and shoot when it called for. Make my teammates better out there."

(Jones hasn't met with the media much given circumstances and the fact he didn't play much last year, but he already is a sneaky good interview.)

-- Hard to believe, and maybe it's because we haven't heard from DeAndre Hopkins in a while, but it feels like his potential matchup with Jalen Ramsey has gone under the radar. Hop was plenty frustrated after last year's finale, between Ramsey's coverage and his inability to hook up with Streveler. He's due for some production, although Ramsey is a tough guy to get it against.

-- The Cardinals have played in new SoFi Stadium already, of course. But there was no one there. Not one fan, and that'll be markedly different that this time. Defensive tackle Rashard Lawrence said he was surprised that the empty building last year still was a "good environment" with energy. I can only imagine this time around, with first place on the line.

See you Sunday.

WR DeAndre Hopkins has the ball on the ground after a play in LA against the Rams in 2021