PHOENIX – After Sunday’s slate of games, the Arizona Cardinals were the NFL’s only 4-0 team, with the 3-0 Las Vegas Raiders visiting the Los Angeles Chargers Monday night.
The Cardinals dominated LA’s other team, the Rams, 37-20 at SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, California Sunday, beating the Rams for the first time since the 2016 season and snapping an eight-game losing streak against them.
It is the first time the Cardinals have been 4-0 since 2012, but coach Kliff Kingsbury is trying to keep his team grounded.
“We made it a point to stay in the present, focus on one week at a time and trying to improve each week and I think our guys have done a nice job with that so far,” Kingsbury told reporters Monday.
One need only look back to that 2012 team to know that’s a wise approach. While it’s still a small sample size, the 2021 Cardinals appear to be built better for the long haul than a flawed 2012 squad that imploded.
That was the second season in Arizona for quarterback Kevin Kolb, who signed a $63.5 million contract with the Cardinals after the Eagles traded him to Arizona.
Despite his hefty contract, Kolb lost a training-camp competition with John Skelton for the starting job in 2012, but came off the bench to lead the Cardinals to a come-from-behind victory over Seattle in the first game of the season.
Kolb took over the starting job and after Arizona beat Miami 24-21 the team was 4-0 and creating a buzz.
“It’s been messy at points, and this team isn’t about to thrill you with numbers, but throw out the stats: This team just wins,” wrote NFL Network’s Marc Sessler after the 4-0 start in 2012.
The thrills didn’t last long and it got messier.
Kolb, coming off a game in which he was sacked nine times in a loss to the Rams, suffered rib injuries when he was sacked late in a 19-16 loss to the Buffalo Bills. Skelton, Ryan Lindley and Brian Hoyer struggled in Kolb’s absence, and the Cardinals quickly spiraled downhill.
They lost nine consecutive games, including the worst loss in franchise history, a 58-0 drubbing to the same Seattle Seahawks they had defeated in the season opener.
Arizona’s 5-11 finish led to coach Ken Whisenhunt’s firing just four years after he led the Cardinals to Super Bowl XLIII, where they lost to Pittsburgh.
The comparisons between the 2012 Cardinals and the 2021 edition stop at the 4-0 record to start the season.
Kolb, Skelton, Lindley, and Hoyer each started games, leaving the Cardinals with a lack of consistent leadership at the sport’s most important position.
This season, third-year quarterback Kyler Murray has taken the leap into the upper echelon of NFL quarterbacks, and might have produced his most impressive performance to date by beating a previously unbeaten Rams team on the road.
It has landed Murray at the center of early-season NFL Most Valuable Player discussions. Leading into the Raiders-Chargers game Monday night, Murray ranked second in the NFL in passing yards behind only Tampa Bay’s Tom Brady. He was third in adjusted total quarterback rating (QBR), which adjust for strength of opponent. And Murray was tied for fifth in the league with nine touchdown passes. He has completed 76.1% of his passes and has rushed for three scores.
Kevin Kolb or John Skelton, he is not.
Sunday was the first time that Murray and coach Kliff Kingsbury had beaten the Rams, and Rams coach Sean McVay gushed over Murray’s performance.
“It’s hard to simulate and mimic and emulate the speed he plays, with the athleticism, the feel, the instincts. And that was on display today,” McVay said after the game. “And that’s why he’s done such a great job during the first month of the season of playing at such a high level.”
Murray is now the betting favorite to win NFL MVP honors, overtaking Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes in the latest sports bookmaking odds. He is listed at +550 to win the award at Caesar’s Sportsbook, according to ESPN.com.
Entering Monday, the Arizona offense is atop the league in total yards and points per game, a stark contrast to that 2012 team that finished at the bottom of the league in total offense and next to last in scoring.
So far in 2021, the Arizona offense is scoring points on 51% of its drives. The 2012 team scored on only 22% of its drives, ranking last in the league that season.
"I think after Week 4 you can legitimately say that [the Arizona Cardinals are the best team in the NFL]."
— First Take (@FirstTake) October 4, 2021
Not only are the Cardinals putting up league-leading numbers on the offensive side of the ball, but the defense is holding its own as well. Entering Monday, the Arizona defense ranked ninth in points allowed per game and third in takeaways.
The 2012 defense was good, but it could only carry a lethargic offense for so long.
The more rounded 2021 Cardinals dominated a Rams team many considered a top contender to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl. And in Week 1, the Cardinals traveled to Tennessee and trounced the Titans, the defending AFC South champions who were coming off an 11-5 season.
The balance of offense and defense is evident in Arizona’s point differential, which is second only to the high-powered Buffalo Bills in the NFL.
The 2012 Cardinals, outside of a 27-6 victory in Philadelphia, were squeaking by opponents early that season. The Murray-Kingsbury Cardinals are winning convincingly against good teams on the road.
“The Cardinals are the real deal,” The Athletic’s Dan Pompei wrote. “The Cardinals present one of the most difficult offenses to deal with, as well as one of the most difficult defenses… right now, they are the class of the NFC.”
The Cardinals can only hope Pompei’s observation holds up better than Sessler’s.