Fading Cardinals grasping for answers as postseason looms

The Big Game

Arizona Cardinals tight end Zach Ertz (86) makes a catch in front of Seattle Seahawks defensive back Josh Jones (42) during the first half of an NFL football game Sunday, Jan. 9, 2022, in Glendale, Ariz. (AP Photo/Ralph Freso)

GLENDALE, Ariz. (AP) — The Arizona Cardinals said the things you’d expect after another loss on Sunday that’s part of a long late-season fade:

—They’re so close to winning games.

—They just need to clean up mistakes.

—They have the talent to get the job done.

But the bravado was missing.

They are not playing very well heading into their first playoff appearance in six years. And they know it.

“I think everyone realizes it’s a new season, really nothing in the past matters at this point, I think that’s the focus,” quarterback Kyler Murray said on Sunday. “You have to go 1-0, it’s one and done if you don’t win and I think the guys understand that.

“But, obviously after losing it’s definitely frustrating.”

The Cardinals (11-6) lost for the fourth time in five games Sunday, falling 38-30 to a Seattle Seahawks team that had nothing to play for but pride. The setback cost the Cardinals an NFC West title and a home playoff game.

Instead, they’ll go on the road to face the Los Angeles Rams next Monday night. The two split their regular-season series, with both winning on the other team’s home field.

Arizona’s offense hasn’t looked the same since star receiver DeAndre Hopkins went down with a knee injury last month; it appears highly unlikely he’ll return for the Rams game. Without Hopkins, the Cardinals have struggled to get big plays and haven’t been as effective in the red zone.

The defense had a rough game against Seattle after playing well for most of the season. The unit gave up 431 yards, including 202 on the ground.

No one will care about those numbers if the Cardinals can figure out to beat the Rams next week. Hard as it might be, Arizona’s trying to clear its mind and relish an opportunity to play in the postseason.

“It’s another opportunity that I’m excited for, I haven’t played in the playoffs since I’ve been in the league,” Murray said. “We haven’t been to the playoffs in I don’t know how long, so it’s an opportunity for this team to go do something special.”

WHAT’S WORKING

The Cardinals did have a pair of big defensive plays that led directly to touchdowns. Zach Allen scooped up a fumble after a strip-sack by Chandler Jones and ran 16 yards for the touchdowns. Jalen Thompson had a big interception and ran the ball down to the Seahawks 1-yard line before the Cardinals scored a few plays later.

Those are game-changing plays that can be useful, particularly in the playoffs.

WHAT NEEDS HELP

The offense has to figure out a way to make some big plays, especially in the red zone. The Cardinals put together some long drives against the Seahawks, including one that lasted a whopping 19 plays and two others that spanned 14 snaps.

But all three ended in field goals. That didn’t work against the Seahawks and it probably won’t against the Rams, either.

STOCK UP

Tight end Zach Ertz has been very good since his midseason trade from the Eagles in October. He’s played in 11 games and had 56 catches for 574 yards and three touchdowns.

If the Cardinals are going to fix their red-zone woes, Ertz will likely be a big part of the solution.

STOCK DOWN

Kliff Kingsbury looked like a coach of the year candidate two months ago. Now it’s fair to wonder how warm his seat will be if the Cardinals can’t beat the Rams on Monday.

The second-half struggles have been a trend during his head coaching career at both Texas Tech and Arizona.

INJURIES

The big question mark is James Conner, the Pro Bowl running back who scored two touchdowns against the Seahawks and has been excellent all year. He took a hard shot to the ribs in the fourth quarter and didn’t return, and Kingsbury said he wasn’t sure about his status for the Rams game. The Cardinals also hope RB Chase Edmonds (ribs/toe), WR Rondale Moore (ankle), CB Marco Wilson (shoulder) and DL Jordan Phillips (knee) can return.

KEY NUMBER

8-1 — That’s the road record this season for the Cardinals, who for some reason have played much better away from State Farm Stadium. They were just 3-5 at home. Luckily for Arizona, this week’s game is in California.

NEXT STEPS

The Cardinals are right about one thing: previous record doesn’t matter when they take the field against the Rams. Arizona’s got to find a way to recapture its big-play capabilities on offense and patch up a defense that didn’t play particularly well against the Seahawks.

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