Kyler Murray had a chance to lead his club to a playoff victory and advance significantly in the NFL quarterback rankings on Monday night.
He went in the opposite direction.
In Arizona's 34-11 NFC Wild Card Game loss to the Rams, the Cardinals quarterback struggled from start to finish, leading only one productive scoring drive and finishing with a 19-of-34 passing line for 137 yards, two interceptions, and a 40.9 passer rating. The Cardinals quietly departed the postseason after dominating the opposite end of a success scale earlier this season.
"It's disappointing that we didn't make it a game and come out and play the football we know we're capable of playing, that's really the most disappointing part," Murray told reporters following the loss. "Losing is one thing, but when you don't even make it competitive, it's another thing.
"I put a lot on my shoulders, put a lot on myself and to dream of this moment and then be in the playoffs, the first game of the playoffs and then to play the way I did, to play the way we did, it's, like I said, disappointing."
All of the positive energy the Cardinals had built up earlier in the season was squandered in the first four quarters. It was the culmination of a process that began weeks ago with a humiliating loss to the Detroit Lions.
It's been two seasons in a row that Kliff Kingsbury's team has struggled down the stretch. The only difference this time is that their final setback occurred in the postseason, which J.J. Watt described as "embarrassing."
"It was a massive failure, from what we were capable of doing, to what we showed we can do, to today," Watt said Monday night. "There is no other way to describe it."
Murray was in agreement with Watt's assessment.
"Yeah, I mean, I agree," the QB said. "I play to win the Super Bowl. That's the goal, that's the mission is to win a Super Bowl, not to make it to the playoffs or go to the second round. The goal is to win the Super Bowl, we fell short of that. So, yes, I agree."
Watt signed the Cardinals as a free agent in the hopes of winning a championship. Murray, Kingsbury, and the Cardinals' brass must now answer for their latest blunder, which reeked of a lack of preparation that showed in Arizona's inability to execute.
Kingsbury didn't have much to say about his Cardinals' current trend.
"We just got to keep looking at it," the coach said. "Keep trying to find new ways to improve later on in the season, whatever that may be. That's definitely a priority this offseason."
The Cardinals have no qualms about getting off to a good start in the regular season. In 2021, Arizona went unbeaten for the first seven games and was the last club in the NFL to go undefeated before falling to the Green Bay Packers in heartbreaking ways on prime-time television. Despite this, the Cardinals' performance in the first two months of the season convinced many to pick them as the favourite to win the NFC.
In retrospect, such an anticipation was naive.
The Cardinals' displeasure was evident in the national public, as they lost all three prime-time games they played during the regular season. Murray had a 1-4 touchdown-to-interception ratio in the three games, completing 64.8 percent of his throws for 902 yards and a 1-4 touchdown-to-interception ratio. It seemed only natural that their season ended in a humiliating fashion during prime-time viewing on Monday night.
The Cardinals showed they had the talent to compete with the best in the league, but lacked the experience to manage the pressure. They didn't receive many breaks from the injury bug, which sidelined Watt for the majority of the season before he miraculously returned to play in the wild-card game. Murray was also missing a crucial target after DeAndre Hopkins went down with an injury and did not return for the postseason game.
A.J. Green, another key contributor, was unable to make an impact Monday night, seeing three targets but failing to catch any of them (though one required a review to be deemed an incomplete pass). Instead, young players like Christian Kirk, Rondale Moore, and Eno Benjamin were tasked with carrying the load. Meanwhile, experienced tight end Zach Ertz (an offseason acquisition) didn't play much, catching three receptions for 21 yards.
When looking at the game as a whole, none of these playmakers had much of an opportunity to make a difference.
Arizona's aspirations were dashed by Murray's reticence to throw early and his inability to place passes precisely, and an early deficit precluded any chance of executing a balanced assault. On the night, Benjamin, Chase Edmonds, and James Conner combined for 16 carries. Murray himself only ran twice, gaining a total of six yards.
"I haven't thought about the future or anything like that," Murray said. "Trying to soak all this in. There's a lot of emotions. Proud of the team. Proud of the way we fought.
" It's unfortunate we didn't play our best tonight."
Simply put, Arizona's offence didn't work on Monday night, and it hasn't worked well enough in the last two seasons to make the Cardinals a viable playoff contender. Instead, they're September and October darlings who, in December and January, reveal to be as tough as tin cans.
That must change next season, or else a change is on the way. For the time being, Kingsbury and his colleagues will have plenty of time to come up with an answer. In 2022, they'll have to put that into a strategy.