PHOENIX – To say the Arizona Cardinals got off to a slow start against the Houston Texans is an understatement.
With coach Kliff Kingsbury only cleared Sunday morning to return to the sidelines after a bout with COVID-19, the offense gained just 1 yard and the Cardinals trailed 5-0 at the end of the first quarter against the one-win Texans.
Kingsbury had spent the week coaching virtually and missed the team’s previous game against Cleveland, but he was back to calling plays against Houston. And he said it took a while to find a rhythm.
“It just felt funky,” Kingsbury said. “Usually, I’ve called those plays over and over throughout the week. It just didn’t feel like the same type of rhythm, same type of comfort level. I just felt more on edge than I normally do after six days of preparation.”
It all changed on the fourth drive of the game for Arizona as the passing attack returned to form and Murray found Hopkins for his seventh touchdown this season. That score triggered a string of 31 unanswered points and led to a 31-5 victory, the seventh straight for the Cardinals.
The 7-0 start matches the franchise’s best start set back in 1974.
And Arizona’s 31 points is the sixth time this season the Cardinals have scored more than 30 points in a game. The offense, led by quarterback Kyler Murray, is still clicking and a huge part of the winning streak.
“When you have a quarterback like Kyler Murray to lead the offense, you’ve got a chance to be an undefeated team,” linebacker Markus Golden said. “I give credit to Kyler. He’s worked his tail off to lead this team.”
However, the defense is contributing to the success as well. In the second half, Arizona has outscored opponents 96-40, including shutouts of the Browns and Texans in the second half. This also comes from a team that has trailed at halftime only once this season. Arizona trailed 13-7 against the Jacksonville Jaguars at the break.
The Cardinals coaching staff and defensive leaders get credit for the second-half adjustments.
“That’s what I expect this defense to do,” linebacker Isaiah Simmons said. “With the playmakers we have everywhere, I don’t really see a weak link on our defense.”
The defense might face its toughest test so far this season Thursday night, when the Cardinals make a quick turnaround to face the 6-1 Green Bay Packers and quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
The shortened week for preparation and recovery might be the most challenging aspect of an NFL season and the Cardinals are well aware of what it takes to win on the prime-time stage.
“You’ve just got to prepare for them quickly,” Murray said. “I think whoever handles the week better usually tends to play a little bit better. We understand the task at hand, and we’ll come ready to play on Thursday.”
Green Bay enters the matchup on a six-game winning streak after taking down the Washington Football Team 24-10 on Sunday. The Packers’ success lies with the passing game but Rodgers might not have his top target, Davante Adams, Thursday. Adams was placed on the COVID-19 list by Green Bay Monday afternoon. Still, with or without Adams, the Packers are a threat to the Cardinals’ unblemished record.
“It’s the toughest thing in the NFL to turnaround, especially against a good opponent like Green Bay,” Cardinals receiver DeAndre Hopkins said. “They’ve got playmakers over there just like we do over here. The biggest thing for us is recovering and getting ready for those guys.”
State Farm Stadium has been the site of several memorable matchups between Green Bay and Arizona, especially in the playoffs.
In 2010, Rodgers made his playoff debut against the Cardinals, bringing the Packers back from 21 points to force overtime. Receiving the ball first in OT, Rodgers dropped back to pass, was stripped of the ball by Michael Adams and Karlos Dansby returned the fumble for a game-winning touchdown.
Six years later, Arizona made its return to the postseason and Rodgers used his magic to force overtime in the divisional round, completing two Hail Mary passes on the final drive. However, Larry Fitzgerald would be the one remembered for his heroics, taking a pass from Carson Palmer 75 yards down the field. Fitzgerald punched it in on a lateral a couple plays later to walk off another playoff win.
While it’s only Week 8 of the season, Thursday night could impact the postseason as well. Both teams lead their respective divisions, but the top team in the conference gets a bye in the first round and home field throughout the playoffs.
“The message is clear. We’re playing for the postseason and we’re playing to the end,” Cardinals wide receiver Christian Kirk said. “Each game from here on out is bigger than the next and bigger than the previous one. We’ve got to bring it every game.”