Kyler Murray leading Arizona Cardinals back to respectability

Russell Wilson has done it so many times the outcome seemed fated. Prime time, ball in his hands, game tied or needing one score to win in the waning moments -- the Seahawks quarterback almost always delivers in that situation. Key word: almost.

Just when it appeared the MVP front-runner would break the heart of another opponent, Isaiah Simmons, a rookie linebacker who is long on potential but short on playing time and production, faked the blitz, dropped into the passing lane and picked off Wilson with just over a minute to play in overtime, helping to set up the decisive field goal in the Cardinals’ 37-34 victory at State Farm Stadium in Glendale, Arizona.

The takeaway was stunning not only because it rarely happens to Wilson in those moments, but also because the Arizona defense appeared spent. The unit played 46 snaps after halftime and 82 overall. It began the night without top pass rusher Chandler Jones, who is out for the year with a biceps injury, and lost a couple of defensive tackles to in-game injuries, which wreaked havoc on the rotation.

Perhaps fittingly, it was Simmons, one of the unit's freshest players who came up with the biggest play. The first-round pick out of Clemson had seen his playing time curtailed because of struggles to make the transition from college. He played just five snaps Sunday, but the final one could provide the wind that allows him to take flight.

"Before the game, I told him, this might be the game where you break that seal," veteran cornerback Patrick Peterson said. "I'll be doggone, he made a play -- a huge play -- for this defense and for this team to get the [win]."

The victory counted for only one game, but in some respects, it meant so much more. It left the Cardinals (5-2) a game behind the Seahawks (5-1) in the loss column in the NFC West and showed the power of grit and resolve. Consider, Arizona found a way to prevail despite:

  • Surrendering 572 yards and 34 points.
  • Falling behind 20-7 late in the first half.
  • Yielding 15 catches for 200 yards and three touchdowns to Tyler Lockett.
  • Giving up 388 yards passing and 84 rushing to Wilson.
  • Being stopped on downs at the Seattle 3-yard line late in the second quarter.
  • Missing a 41-yard field-goal attempt in overtime.
  • Facing a quarterback who was 5-0 in prime-time games on Sunday and 14-2 in one-score outcomes the past two seasons.
  • Were 0-6-1 in their last seven games at home against the Seahawks.

And yet, for all the supposed reasons why they should not have won, the Cardinals matched their win total for all of last season because they scored on four of their final six possessions while holding the Seahawks to just seven points after halftime; because they intercepted Wilson three times, matching his total for the first five games combined; and because they got 427 yards and four touchdowns from scrimmage from quarterback Kyler Murray, who racked up 360 yards and three scores through the air. His 5-yard rushing TD late in the third quarter capped a 12-play, 93-yard drive and made it a one-score game for the first time since early in the opening quarter.

"These are the games you honestly dream about growing up, watching Sunday Night Football, last week playing on Monday [night] -- these are the type of games you want to be a part of," said Murray. "To be a part of these games, you've got to win and keep winning. I'm super proud of the team, the way we fought, not giving up. No matter the circumstances, just keep battling and keep battling."

It has been a long road back to respectability for the Cardinals, whose last winning season and playoff appearance was 2015. Since then, they have had three coaches and two first-round quarterback selections, with Murray replacing Josh Rosen, who was traded after only one season. Management has tried to rebuild with a sense of patient urgency, hoping to land impactful players in the draft while supplanting them with veteran free agents. Whether they will be able to build on Sunday remains to be seen, considering they lacked depth at key spots entering the season and still must find a way to compensate for the loss of Jones, one of the game's premier pass rushers. Running back Kenyan Drake also left the game with an ankle injury. However, when you have a playmaker at quarterback, anything is possible.

Earlier in the week, in a Monday night win over the Cowboys, Murray was just 9-of-24 passing for 188 yards. Much was made about his season-low in completion percentage, but the discussion overlooked the fact that he was able to find a way to make plays when he didn't have his "A" game. He didn't force passes, opting instead to use his legs to pick up key first downs en route to 74 yards and a touchdown on 10 carries. Viewed through a broader prism, it showed the strides he has made in the maturation process. His leadership also has shown growth. As a rookie last year, he was more distant and reluctant to hold teammates accountable. Not so this year, which was evident when he showed his displeasure on the sideline after a pair of tight ends failed to block linebacker K.J. Wright on a bubble screen, resulting in lost yards. Even when he discussed the upcoming bye, he sounded like a different player.

"This is Year 2 for me, and understanding last year what happened, for me, there is no bye week," he said. "Last year, we kind of treated it as if it was a bye week; this year, head stays down."

The Seahawks appear to be going through a transition of their own. For much of the last decade, their formula for winning has been to be stingy on defense and to rely on Wilson's playmaking on offense. Wilson has lived up to his end of the deal, but the defense has struggled to make stops or put consistent pressure on quarterbacks. Their current situation doesn't prevent them from winning games, but it could block their path to a Super Bowl victory because defense often takes on heightened importance in the postseason. Consider 2013, when Peyton Manning, then with the Broncos, set a league record with 22 touchdown passes through the first six games of a season. He finished with 55 aerial scores that year, but Denver was routed in the Super Bowl, 43-8, by Seattle.

Wilson now has 22 touchdown passes through six games, matching the mark that Manning set. And unless the Seahawks find some fixes to their defensive issues, they could fall short of their ultimate goal just as the 2013 Broncos did. As it is, they entered the game having beaten only one team (Miami) with a non-losing record. Two of their wins were against one-win teams (Atlanta and Minnesota) and two were against two-win clubs (Dallas and New England).

It's fair to ask if we really know just how good the Seahawks are at this point. Playoff good, sure. But good enough to make a run all the way? It's still too early to tell. For the Cardinals, this season is about continuing to lay the foundation and build on it. They've already matched their win total for last season, so in some respects they're playing with house money.

"I remember talking to ( DeAndre Hopkins, Larry Fitzgerald and Christian Kirk) before the game; I said we're going to find out what type of team we are today," said running back Chase Edmonds, who had five carries for 58 yards, 43 coming after halftime. "Obviously we have some decent wins on the board, but you know Seattle is going to be playing in January. Everybody knows they're going to be in the playoff hunt and playoff race. This is one of those games where you find out: How real are we? What are we made of? There was a lot of adversity, we kept taking punches, but we responded real well. So it does a lot for our confidence, but it truly sets the standard where we can no longer play down to our competition. We've got to win the games we're supposed to win and be in those dogfight games for the long road."