TEMPE – The fourth quarter has been a struggle all season long for the Cardinals. Entering Sunday, Arizona had been outscored 77-24 and held scoreless seven times in the final period.
But those were the Cardinals without quarterback Kyler Murray.
At State Farm Stadium Sunday against the Atlanta Falcons, the Cardinals were again outscored in the fourth quarter, managing just three points. But those three points, engineered by Murray in his return to the Cardinals lineup, came at a crucial moment and delivered a 25-23 victory.
For the first time all season, the Cardinals succeeded in crunch time, producing some late-game magic to earn their second victory of the year and snap a six-game losing streak.
Those heroics in the closing moments came courtesy of Murray, the club’s franchise quarterback who made his return 335 days after suffering a torn ACL against the New England Patriots last December.
After nine weeks of anticipation, Murray returned to the field in Glendale and made an immediate impact with his arm and, more importantly given the injury, his legs.
With 1:50 remaining and the Cardinals trailing 23-22, Arizona faced a third-and-10 at their own 42-yard line. Murray, under heavy pressure, escaped to his left before spinning back to his right, picked up speed and miraculously got the first down that led to Matt Prater’s 23-yard, game-winning field goal as time expired.
According to NFL Next Gen Stats, Murray reached a top speed of 20.17 mph on the scramble, the fifth-fastest run in his entire career.
It’s these improvisational plays that have made Murray beloved in Arizona over the years. For Cardinals rookie linebacker BJ Ojulari, watching it all unfold from the bench, seeing Murray’s brilliance in person for the first time was an eye-opening experience.
“It’s real different seeing it up close and personal,” Ojulari said. “On TV, it’s almost like a video game. And when you’re in the moment, especially a big-time play like that – that we needed in a big-time situation – it’s almost surreal.”
Ojulari had a breakout game for the Cardinals on the defensive side, recording eight tackles and two sacks, doubling his season total for the latter. The LSU product sees the return of Murray as an assist to the defense.
“It gives us a boost, an extra motivation, knowing that if we get the ball into No. 1’s hands, the offense is going to deliver,” Ojulari said.
Arizona’s defense allowed just 254 total yards to the Falcons, continuing a trend this season of that unit’s ability to keep the team in games with their play. The difference now is that the Cardinals have their playmaker to close the deal.
Murray threw for 249 yards and an interception, while also rushing six times for 33 yards and a touchdown on the ground. He showed little rust, with the exception of a bad interception in the third quarter, which appeared to be a miscommunication with tight end Trey McBride.
Coach Jonathan Gannon noticed a change in attitude all week during practice with Murray’s return on the horizon.
“It seemed like it upticked our competitiveness on both sides,” Gannon said. “I thought we had a really good week of practice. A jolt of energy, a little more belief that we’re going to make sure, if we get the ball there late, we’re going to score points. That’s part of him making his teammates better psychologically.”
For months, the former No. 1 overall draft pick has been working out at the Cardinals practice facility. His dedication to getting back on the field, if unseen by the public, was on display to his teammates.
“Just seeing him rehab very hard each and every day,” Ojulari said. “First one in the facility, last one to leave. Doing the extra stuff. To see him come out and put on a performance like he did is very gratifying. It felt very good.”
The Cardinals will travel to Houston this weekend to face the Texans, looking for their first road win of the season. They will have a tall task ahead of them, facing a team that just beat the Bengals on the road and whose rookie quarterback C.J. Stroud is playing at an All-Pro level.
However, they’ll do so with new life this weekend, knowing they now have a chance to win every week with their own dynamic signal-caller back in the lineup.