Kyler Murray, Cardinals Eliminated from Playoff Contention with Loss to Rams

Adam Wells@adamwells1985Featured ColumnistJanuary 4, 2021

Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray is sacked by Los Angeles Rams defensive end Morgan Fox (97) during the first half of an NFL football game Sunday, Jan. 3, 2021, in Inglewood, Calif. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)
Jae C. Hong/Associated Press

The Arizona Cardinals' playoff hopes came to an end in Week 17 with Sunday's 18-7 loss to the Los Angeles Rams.

An injury knocked Kyler Murray out for part of the game, forcing Chris Streveler to run the offense as Arizona fought for its postseason life. Ultimately, neither could do much against the Rams defense. Murray and Streveler combined to go 19-of-27 for 192 yards, one touchdown and one interception. 

Bryan Fischer @BryanDFischer

8-8 is a (relative) sign of progress for the Cardinals but they left so many wins on the table this season.

The Cardinals looked like one of the best teams in the NFL when this season began. They stormed out of the gates with a 5-2 record that was capped off by a 37-34 overtime victory against the Seattle Seahawks. Murray put himself in the MVP conversation with 427 yards of offense and four touchdowns in the win. 

Coming out of their bye in Week 8, though, the Cardinals' momentum halted. They entered the final week of the regular season having lost five of their last eight games, putting them in a must-win spot against the Rams. 

Murray's MVP candidacy evaporated during that stretch. He was held under 250 yards passing six times in the previous seven weeks. The 23-year-old averaged 35.3 rushing yards per game from Weeks 11-16, down from 67.1 in the first 10 weeks. 

One possible explanation for Murray's declining performance was a shoulder injury he suffered in Week 11 against the Seahawks. The Oklahoma alum has denied that issue was causing him to run the ball less. 

Even though this wasn't the ending that Murray or the Cardinals hoped for from this season, the long-term outlook for the franchise is bright. 

Following Bruce Arians' retirement at the end of the 2017 season, the Cardinals bottomed out with a 3-13 record in 2018. That team was coached by Steve Wilks and had rookie quarterback Josh Rosen, who was selected with the 10th overall pick. 

Arizona secured the top choice in the 2019 NFL draft and opted to replace Wilks after one season with Kliff Kingsbury. More important than the decision to hire Kingsbury, though, was the selection of Kyler Murray coming off his Heisman-winning campaign at the University of Oklahoma. 

Murray paid immediate dividends as a rookie with 3,722 passing yards, 544 rushing yards and 24 total touchdowns to win the 2019 Associated Press Rookie of the Year award. He continued to grow this season, particularly with his ability as a runner. The 23-year-old was tied for fifth in the NFL with 11 rushing touchdowns entering Sunday.

The addition of DeAndre Hopkins in a trade with the Houston Texans helped unlock the full extent of Murray's throwing powers. The All-Pro receiver acclimated himself well in his new home with 1,407 yards on 115 receptions.

Murray and Hopkins also created one of the most memorable moments of the season in Arizona's 32-30 win over the Buffalo Bills on Nov. 15. 

Sports Illustrated @SInow

D-HOP CANNOT BE STOPPED 😤 (via @AZCardinals) https://t.co/8nwCbyUqlU

While the offense received most of the attention in Arizona, the defense's dramatic improvement from 2019 was instrumental to the team's playoff push this season. 

The Cardinals finished 20th in defensive DVOA and 28th in points allowed during the 2019 season. The defense entered Sunday ranked 10th in DVOA and 14th in points allowed this year. 

Haason Reddick had a breakout season with 12.5 sacks after recording 7.5 sacks in his first three years combined. Budda Baker is a Swiss Army knife who led the team 118 combined tackles and added seven tackles for loss. 

The Cardinals have their foundation in place. Now, with a few tweaks and additions through the draft and free agency, they should be ready to take a huge step forward in 2021.