ARLINGTON, Texas -- The Arizona Cardinals needed this. Not just the win but the manner by which it came. This had been a team in freefall, desperately searching for a way to avoiding imploding in a fashion that would've been all too familiar. Now it's a squad with a lot more evidence of what it used to be and how far it can still go in the coming weeks.
There was no doubting Arizona had more on the line in their 25-22 win over the Dallas Cowboys. The Cardinals had lost their previous three games and there were plenty of questions about whether a team that started the season with seven straight victories could melt down before the playoffs ever began. So this wasn't merely about finding a way to get a win. It was about the Cardinals reminding themselves of why they became such a hot team in the first place.
Their offense delivered clutch plays, their defense suffocated the highest-scoring team in the league and they finished the game by keeping the Cowboys away from the football for the final four minutes.
"We always preach a winning mentality and the last three weeks we haven't done that," Cardinals safety Budda Baker said. "We noticed that eight players would be doing their jobs and two players wouldn't (on plays in previous games). So this week, we focused in practice on just doing your job on whatever play that is. That's all it takes. And we did that today."
To be fair, the Cardinals aren't the only contender in the NFL who's had to battle through some adversity. There are three teams in the AFC who were under .500 in the first half of the season -- the Chiefs, Patriots and Colts. The Rams endured a three-game losing streak of their own while the Cowboys dropped three of four earlier this year. It's been that kind of season.
What was troubling about the Cardinals was the timing. They stumbled down the stretch while trying to make a playoff push in 2020 and they were starting to feel the weight of their collective losses this year. The Cardinals already had lost defensive end J.J. Watt to a season-ending injury and Pro Bowl wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins is currently sidelined with a knee injury. Throw in a number of other players who couldn't suit up against Dallas -- a list that included wide receiver Rondale Moore, running back James Conner, defensive end Jordan Phillips and cornerback Marco Wilson -- and it was starting to feel like the challenge was too much for a struggling team.
The Cardinals proved otherwise. They reminded us that this is still the same bunch that found a way to get an early season win in Cleveland when COVID-19 was running rampant in the Arizona locker room. The Cardinals also won two out of three games when an ankle injury sidelined quarterback Kyler Murray and forced backup Colt McCoy to lead the offense. This group doesn't lack for heart. Sunday's game was a perfect time to remind folks of just that.
Cardinals head coach Kliff Kingsbury even admitted that this team never became disillusioned with all those setbacks. It just needed to steady itself somehow.
"When you don't have J.J. or you're missing James Conner or Rondale (Moore) or some of those big-time playmakers on both sides of the ball, you do have some thoughts about how you're going to figure this out or move some pieces around to make it happen," Kingsbury said. "But I don't think it was a confidence deal. Our coaches and players know we have enough talent in our locker room that is healthy and ready to roll (and) that we can play with anybody."
One of the most encouraging aspects of this Arizona win was the discipline the Cardinals displayed. They committed 25 penalties during that three-game losing streak. They had none against the Cowboys. A defense that had been pilloried by critics for being soft against the run stiffened, as well. Dallas finished the game with only 45 yards on the ground.
Most importantly, Murray controlled the action for most of the contest. This offense had lost some of its rhythm when Hopkins went down, but Murray spread the football around efficiently -- completing 26 of 38 passes for 263 yards -- while also hitting unheralded receiver Antoine Wesley for both of his touchdowns. Murray was equally dangerous when improvising, as he gained 44 yards on nine rushing attempts. It was basically the type of performance and result that he's become accustomed to inside AT&T stadium.
Murray, a native of Allen, Texas, now has started eight games inside this venue, including high school and college. He hasn't lost any of them.
"I can't lose when I come home, that's just my mentality," Murray said. "But it's not just about the mentality. It's about the execution, coming out and doing it. The guys feel great, too, when they come back here. I don't know what it is – it's a great stadium, great fans. When you come to Cowboys stadium, it's a big-time game. That's the feel around it. I'm glad the guys had my back today."
If Murray took a little more joy in this victory, it had to be just as painful for the team he grew up watching.
As well as the Cowboys have played this season, they're still facing their own doubts. They only have two wins over teams who would be in the playoffs if they started today (the Chargers and Patriots). Dallas also was hoping to build on the momentum that came from a 56-14 thrashing of the Washington Football Team only a week ago.
Now it's quite likely that the Cardinals could end up back here for a wild-card playoff game in two weeks. The Cowboys have clinched the NFC East and currently hold the fourth seed. The Cardinals, who improved to 11-5, are the fifth seed and just one game behind the Rams in the race for the NFC West crown. Los Angeles can claim the title with a win, but the Cardinals would take it if both teams finished with the same record.
The Cardinals, however, weren't making this too complicated.
As Kingsbury said, "I'd rather not (come back to Dallas for a playoff game), but I'm just excited to be in the playoffs. So whoever it ends up being, we'll take it."
Added Murray: "I feel fine about it. Wherever I have to go, that's what has to be done."
It certainly helps that Murray already has a nice track record going when returning to his hometown.
The quarterback also realizes that this team will have more healthy bodies in the coming weeks. Above all, the Cardinals have one of the most important assets any squad could have as the regular season winds to a close. They know they still have what it takes to earn critical wins at this time of year.