Analysis

Cardinals snap eight-game losing streak to Rams with statement-making win in Los Angeles

INGLEWOOD, Calif. -- Some football games are strictly business. You block and tackle, run and throw, catch and break up passes.

You start, you finish, you move on.

But some games are personal. They have an added edge, a distinct feeling that something is owed to the opponent.

Such was the case Sunday on a steamy afternoon in SoFi Stadium, where the Cardinals took out four years of frustration against the Rams in the form of a 37-20 victory that was both complete and satisfying.

Arizona had lost eight consecutive games to Los Angeles. In seven of them, the Cardinals surrendered at least 31 points. In five, they failed to score more than nine points. In total, over the course of this protracted skid that went back to 2017, Arizona was outscored by an average margin of 31-11.

Players might make it to the NFL because of their physical ability, but many of those who hang around do so because of their competitive pride. And getting your "ass kicked" -- which is how star quarterback Kyler Murray described the losing streak -- is sufficient reason to take a game personally.

So when the Cardinals took over on their own 1-yard line early in the fourth quarter and marched 94 yards on 11 ... consecutive ... run ... plays, it had to be personal, no?

"I don't know about personal," Cardinals owner Michael Bidwill said of the overall performance. "But it was damn important. Eight was enough."

"Yeah, that was communicated during the week," head coach Kliff Kingsbury said, chuckling after learning of the comment.

That road-grading drive chewed up more than half of the fourth quarter, ultimately producing Arizona's last score of the game, a 23-yard field goal that gave the Cardinals an eye-opening 37-13 lead over the previously unbeaten home team. The Rams tacked on a garbage-time touchdown to make the final margin look a bit less humiliating, but Murray and Co. had stormed SoFi Stadium and made a statement.

The outcome was significant for the Cardinals for multiple reasons. It not only improved their record to 4-0 and gave them sole possession of first place in the NFC West -- a game ahead of the Rams and two ahead of the Seahawks and 49ers -- but it also confirmed they were spot on last offseason when seeking battle-tested players who could make impacts in the locker room as well as on the field. The Cards wanted veterans who could help create a culture of success in which players would expect to win, not just hope for the best. Several of those signings played major roles Sunday, whether it was center Rodney Hudson making the correct line calls and leading a unit that allowed Arizona to run for 216 yards; or defensive end J.J. Watt aiding a defense that had two takeaways and made a potent Rams offense appear pedestrian for much of the day, with 146 of Los Angels' 401 total yards coming in garbage time; or wideout A.J. Green setting a tone early with a 41-yard touchdown reception to get the Cardinals on the board.

"If you go look at the guys that we brought here, they're used to winning," said Murray, who finished 24 of 32 for 268 yards with two touchdowns and no turnovers, adding 39 more yards on the ground. "They played in great organizations that are used to winning, and then they brought that over here."

No one is going to confuse the Raiders, Texans or Bengals -- the teams for which each of the aforementioned last played -- as NFL blue bloods, but at least those veterans went to the playoffs while there. The Cardinals? They haven't been to the postseason since the 2015 campaign, which also happens to be the last time they had a winning record.

But this incarnation of Red Birds should not be confused with teams from the organization's recent past. Everything about this bunch is improved, including the play of Murray, the former No. 1 overall draft pick who's started the past 36 games at quarterback for Arizona. He now wears the offense as comfortably as he might a pair of slippers. He is proactive instead of reactive, in part because he is in his third season of working against NFL defenses, but also because he has been surrounded with a better supporting cast. Hudson solidified the interior of the line, James Conner has been a solid performer at running back, and the receiving corps is so deep Murray no longer has to force everything to perennial Pro Bowler DeAndre Hopkins. In fact, the Cardinals have had different receptions leaders in each of their four games: Hopkins in Week 1; rookie receiver Rondale Moore and tight end Maxx Williams in Week 2; wideout Christian Kirk in Week 3; and Green and Williams on Sunday.

Defensively, the Cardinals finally have a nice blend of youth and experience. Vance Joseph had worked with smoke and mirrors during his first two seasons as Arizona's defensive coordinator, but now he has playmakers on every level, with Watt and Chandler Jones rushing off the edges, Jordan Hicks and Isaiah Simmons leading an athletic linebacker group, and Budda Baker and Byron Murphy patrolling the secondary. The unit made life miserable for Matthew Stafford, who could never find a sustained rhythm. He attempted a deep shot to DeSean Jackson on his second possession, but was picked off by Murphy. It was hit and miss from there, as Stafford's 89.5 passer rating marked the first time this season he's been held below triple digits. The first-year Ram finished 26 of 41 for 280 yards with two touchdowns and that early pick.

"I thought he was gutsy," Rams coach Sean McVay said of his new quarterback. "There were a couple of things that he didn't play up to his level early on, but you talk about being able to will us down the field when we ended up coming short on that fourth down (in the fourth quarter) and one where we just missed (on a throw to Tyler Higbee). But some of the individual plays that he made, the look in his eye, you know, I'll ride with that guy any day. And I feel that way about our football team. And I think these are the moments you can really see a lot about how people are wired the right way."

The Arizona defense never lacked for physicality, but previously it struggled to keep pace with the motion and deception the Rams use. Now, however, the group feels it is at a point where the mental part of its game has caught up to the physical part, and that could bode well for the rest of the season. Because it's clear the offense can hold its own with Murray playing at an MVP level.

The only people who seemed capable of stopping Arizona's 24-year-old signal-caller on Sunday were his parents, whom he visited with before heading to the postgame locker room. Murray is the type of talent who can make defenders question their reason for being. He has a rare blend of quickness, speed and arm talent. There is no worse feeling for a defender than helplessness, and he regularly left the Rams feeling that way. Kenny Young thought he had him on a third-and-16 play midway through the second quarter. The Rams linebacker came on the blitz and was alone in space with Murray, but the QB juked him and hit the turbo button, jetting around left end for 18 yards and a first down. Later, on a third-and-14, Murray felt the edges being pinched by the rush, climbed the middle of the pocket and found Moore for a 16-yard gain, setting up a field goal that made it 24-13 at the half. McVay admitted afterward there was a sense of frustration at times trying to contain Murray.

"He did a great job, you know, that's the athleticism and just the great playmaker that he is," the Rams coach said. "And there was a couple of instances where we felt like we could have been better. But you got to give him credit. You know, he's a playmaker. He's been doing this for the last couple years. But it's especially been illustrated the first three weeks of this season."

The Rams probably felt in good shape despite the halftime deficit because the third quarter had been their strongest this year, with them putting up 14 during the period in Week 1 against the Bears and 17 in Week 3 against the Buccaneers. However, the Rams could not find their groove because the Cardinals dominated the ball in the third quarter, running 19 plays to the Rams' eight and outscoring them 10-0.

Then came the demoralizing 12-play, 94-yard field goal drive.

"One thing me and James and the O-line talked about was, we've got to get rid of this Air Raid kind of terminology and really just try to find a way to win a game in the fourth quarter," said running back Chase Edmonds, who finished with 120 yards on just 12 carries, one of which went for 54 yards. "When you're playing tremendous opponents like the Rams, that's what you've got to do. That's playoff football, that's December football."

At this rate, the Cardinals appear to be prepping for a playoff run. Anything less will likely be taken personally.

Follow Jim Trotter on Twitter.

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