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The Cardinals Came Back to Earth Against the Shorthanded Packers

Arizona played pretty well and lost. Green Bay was without several key contributors and won. Football can be weird.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Multiple things can be true at once. In this case, it’s that (a) the Cardinals are one of the best teams in the NFL and (b) they also had an unsustainably hot start to the season and were destined to regress. We saw both sides of that dichotomy on Thursday Night Football. Arizona played a solid game; Arizona also fell back down to Earth. The NFL’s last unbeaten team is perfect no more.

Let’s start at the most natural point: the end. With 15 seconds left in their showdown with the Packers, the Cardinals had driven deep into Green Bay territory, trailing 24-21. They faced second-and-goal from Green Bay’s 5-yard line, with the perfect chance to either end the game with a touchdown or at least push the contest to overtime with a chip-shot field goal. Considering that Arizona had started all the way on the Packers’ half-foot line after an impressive (if, for Wisconsin residents, somewhat controversial) goal-line stop, this drive presented an opportunity for the Cardinals to once again prove themselves as the league’s team to beat. Then, something bizarre happened. Kyler Murray dropped back to pass, looked toward A.J. Green … and Green never turned around. Rasul Douglas, a player who began this month on the Cardinals’ practice squad, picked off Murray for a game-sealing interception:

This play happened immediately after a timeout. After the game, head coach Kliff Kingsbury said that Green simply ran the wrong route. “Yeah, I mean, we feel like it’s a safe throw if [Green] knew the route to run,” Kingsbury said. “It was the right place to go with the ball. Just didn’t communicate on some level and then the guy made a good play.” Cardinals fans are probably screaming for Larry Fitzgerald to return right now.

It wasn’t the only miscue of the night for Arizona. The Cardinals lost a possession when rookie wide receiver Rondale Moore muffed a punt off his fingertips, setting Green Bay up with the football inside the 5-yard line:

Moore also tipped a ball at the beginning of the third quarter that led to a Packers interception:

Those two errors led to 10 Packers points in a game that Green Bay won by just three. By comparison, the Packers had zero turnovers despite fumbling the football twice; Green Bay was able to fall on both of them. Sometimes, that’s just how football goes.

Still, the Cardinals looked impressive at points. They averaged 6.1 yards per play, which exactly matches their season-long average (which ranks seventh in the league). The offense scored touchdowns on two of its four second-half drives; the two that it didn’t score on were the two fluky interceptions. The defense limited reigning MVP Aaron Rodgers to 184 yards on 37 pass attempts (more on that in a minute), and had multiple crucial goal-line stands that kept Arizona in the game. The Cardinals played like crap; they also played great. They lost; they probably should have won. They’re a great team; they’re finally tasting what it’s like when the ball doesn’t bounce their way. Football is complicated.

Adding to the complexity, it’s not like the Cardinals caught all the unlucky breaks Thursday night. The Packers were without both Davante Adams and Allen Lazard (both on the COVID-19 list) as well as Marquez Valdes-Scantling (hamstring). As a result, Rodgers’s most-targeted player was running back Aaron Jones. After Jones it was Juwann Winfree, a practice-squader and 2019 sixth-round draft pick who had never before seen a target in an NFL game. Tight end Robert Tonyan left the game with a knee injury in the third quarter, leaving the cupboard even more bare for the Packers. (Rodgers found Randall Cobb for two touchdowns; this is probably the most he’s ever missed Jake Kumerow, and that’s a high bar.) Oh, and defensive coordinator Joe Barry also didn’t make the trip to Phoenix after testing positive for COVID-19.

If all that weren’t enough, Packers fans also surely believe that Aaron Jones broke into the end zone on the team’s final real possession; that call was overturned and made way for the crucial goal-line stop that preempted Arizona’s would-be game-winning drive. Murray was even awarded a first down in the final seconds of the game on a run that looked short; that play wasn’t reviewed.

But, not to be left out, the Cardinals also faced the injury bug themselves. J.J. Watt is likely out for the season with a shoulder injury, and DeAndre Hopkins was in and out (mostly out) of this game with a hamstring issue. They were also starting third-string center Sean Harlow.

All of that is to say that while there is a good case that the Cardinals should have won the game, if they had won, there’d also be a good case that a healthy Packers team would have won. So, yeah, Arizona should have won. But so should have Green Bay. Maybe sometimes too many things can be true at once. If these two teams meet again in January, here’s hoping the game is as competitive as what we saw Thursday night—just with both teams at full strength.