When the Arizona Cardinals were 10-2, not everyone was convinced they were legit. It wasn't necessarily fair at the time. The skepticism ended up being prescient.
The Cardinals had the type of collapse you won't see too often in the NFL. They followed a 10-2 start with a 1-5 finish, including an embarrassing 34-11 wild-card playoff loss to the Los Angeles Rams on Monday night. This comes a season after the Cardinals turned a 6-3 start into an 8-8 season with no playoff berth.
Quarterback Kyler Murray looked awful. Head coach Kliff Kingsbury did not have his team prepared to play. They were down 21-0 at halftime, 28-0 a few minutes into the second half and the offseason was starting a little too early.
The Rams looked great. They looked like the type of team that can go into Tampa Bay next weekend and give the Buccaneers a lot of problems. Monday's performance was impressive, and they'd have blown out a lot of teams with the way they played. But Monday night seemed more about a Cardinals team that finished the regular season looking terrible, and then somehow got worse for a one-and-done playoff exit.
Cardinals implode in ugly loss
The Rams started fast. Odell Beckham Jr. got them on the board with a nice touchdown catch. Matthew Stafford got a TD on a quarterback sneak and the Rams led 14-0. The Rams' defense was shutting down everything the Cardinals wanted to do.
Then disaster struck. The Cardinals were backed up near their own end zone for a third-and-7. Murray held the ball in the end zone, then held it some more. The Rams' pass rush finally got to him, and linebacker Troy Reeder was starting to bring down Murray for a safety. Murray then flipped the ball underhanded to get rid of it and cornerback David Long Jr. picked it off and ran it in for a TD. ESPN said it was the shortest pick-six in NFL postseason history. It was 21-0. The Rams had 169 yards at that point and the Cardinals were stuck on minus-1.
Then, to make matters worse, Murray panicked again when he got pressure on a screen pass, threw it too soon for running back James Conner and the pass went off his hands and was picked off. In the first half, Murray went 7-of-17 for 28 yards and two interceptions. That's a 9.3 passer rating. He rallied in the second half to boost his rating to 40.9 for the game.
Murray's performance brought to mind some of the worst games for quarterbacks in recent playoff history: Jake Delhomme's six-turnover outing for the Panthers in the 2008 postseason, Brett Favre throwing six picks against the Rams in 2001, Daunte Culpepper struggling to get anything going in the 2000 NFC championship game, Kerry Collins against the 2000 Ravens in Super Bowl XXXV. It was that bad.
Losing DeAndre Hopkins hurt the Cardinals' offense tremendously. The defense showed cracks after a good start to the season. Kingsbury never seemed to make the right adjustments after the Cardinals' slump began. It just kept getting worse, until it culminated with a one-sided loss Monday night.
Rams move on with impressive win
Stafford has been in Murray's spot, being questioned after a rough finish to a season. It seems hard to believe for a quarterback who has made 182 regular-season starts, but Monday was the first time Stafford was part of a playoff win. It came in his 13th NFL season. He has the record for most starts in NFL history before his first playoff win.
Stafford didn't need to be great, and maybe that's for the best. He struggled with turnovers late in the season. The early lead allowed the Rams to continue with a run-heavy game plan they started the game with. Stafford made plays when he had to. The Rams will likely need a lot more out of Stafford on Sunday when they face the Buccaneers. On Monday, the Rams were so good in every area that the win was not in doubt from the early minutes of the game.
Maybe Murray will be like Stafford and others, and use playoff failures early on as fuel for eventual success. He still is a very young quarterback. Assuming the Cardinals don't do something rash, Kingsbury will have a chance to show he's capable of leading a team without it collapsing in the final months.
It will just be hard to wash off the stink from the way this season ended. It would have been impossible to believe, when the Cardinals were 10-2, that they'd have such big questions about their coach and quarterback heading into this offseason.