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How the Cardinals went from the NFL’s best record to a team in free fall

The Cardinals are 3-4 over their last seven games after opening the season with a 7-0 record, transforming, on a dime, from the league’s only two-way juggernaut into a bundle of parts masquerading as a team.

On Sunday, against the Lions in Detroit, you could almost feel the shudders of concern seeping through the screen. All those early-era Kliff Kingsbury concerns were back in full force: The dodgy clock management, the lack of faith in an (admittedly rough) offensive line clouding the offensive play-calling, the boom-or-bust defensive doctrine striking out more than it hit – again.

Related: NFL roundup: Lowly Lions roar to huge upset of high-flying Arizona Cardinals

Kingsbury’s team had the look of a side coming unstuck at the wrong moment. Their final three opponents: The Colts, Cowboys, and Broncos. Drop one – or two – and there’s a good chance the Cardinals wind up in a wild-card spot, and this after opening the year as the league’s last undefeated team.

“I thought they played better, coached better, and had a better sense of urgency from the start,” Kingsbury said of the Lions post-game.

The Cardinals didn’t just lose. They were beaten up. Offense, defense, special teams, it didn’t matter. And while the result could be held up as yet another example of football as a whole – and this season in particular – being weird, that would do a disservice to the Lions, and cover up some of the long-term concerns about the Cardinals.

Don’t look now, but the Fighting Dan Campbell’s have been simmering for some time. As 2-11-1 teams go, the Lions are as good as it gets. They play with a frenzied energy. They’re smart, stay within themselves, and play hard. That last part can often be shuffled into the category of vapid coach-ism. But with the Lions, it’s visceral. Every game, every possession, Detroit makes you earn it. Campbell, Ted Lasso in Hulk Hogan’s body, has built a team that’s smart, fights like crazy, and is coached by a staff that does creative things, schematically, on both sides of the ball. This isn’t a typical two-win team – and few are as well-versed in such matters as Detroit.

Still: This is not a game that a legitimate contender loses this late in the season, not while jockeying for playoff positioning. Detroit is just the third team in the Super Bowl era to enter a game with fewer than two wins and beat a 10-win opponent.

It was a defeat that exposed flaws in the Cardinals’ construct. Without Deandre Hopkins, out until the playoffs with an injury, the offense looks impotent when it matters most, save for some individual moments of Kyler Murray magic. They drove to the 10-yard line against the Lions four times on Sunday, coming away with just six points.

When Arizona’s offense is rolling – when the aggressive plays, speedy weapons, and up-tempo pace work in unison – the offense is less about executing football plays as it is psychological warfare. There is no defense you can draw up to slow down Murray, Hopkins, Christian Kirk, Rondale Moore, AJ Green, and a free-flowing run-game. They’re better than you, and they know it, hitting you over the head with the same plays over and over again, and banking on the brilliance of their stars to make it click.

Rip one of the much-needed bricks out of the facade, though, and the whole thing is liable to tumble down. Losing Hopkins and the threat of the run game has seen the offense stall out, defaulting back to the Save Us Kyler territory that has been a feature ever since he was drafted.

There are bigger issues are on defense. Since Week 9, the Cardinals’ defense ranks 12th in EPA per play, a measure of a group’s down-to-down effectiveness. Worse than that: They’ve sunk all the way to 28th in EPA per play on first downs, the metric by which the league’s top defenses judge themselves.

First down is the new third down. It’s where a defense gets into attack mode, particularly if the offense is liable to get into predictable looks. Getting off the field on third downs is a staple of shouty-man-on-TV analysis, but success on first downs is more predictive of long-term success. Stopping a team on third down matters, but what difference does it make if they already strung together a succession of first downs on early downs.

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Winning the first down – forcing a negative play or creating a second-and-10 – is how defenses can keep up in the era of the pace-and-space, chunk play offense.

Attack early. Force a loss. Then sit back and rally to the ball. That’s the mantra ringing out across football at all levels. Do that, and a defense ups its odds of cutting off a drive before it can begin. The key to a good third-down defense, as coach’s like to point out, is winning on first down.

No team has embraced that more than the Cardinals. Arizona sends blitzes and pressures on early downs almost by organizational fiat. Early in the season, it was booming. As opposing offenses have adjusted, it’s started to bust. Losing JJ Watt to injury has compounded the issue.

Against the league’s leading defense, life for the game’s most porous offense was … easy. Jared Goff (Jared Goff!) was rarely troubled. He knew what was coming, was prepared, and got rid of the ball in double-time. He completed 21 of 26 passes for 216 yards, three touchdowns and zero picks, shredding the all-out-attack style.

“We have got to figure it out,” Kingsbury said post-game. There is no one answer; there are debilitating problems in all three phases. With three games left against tricky opponents, Kingsbury is running out of time to find any solutions.

Video of the week

Panthers field goal kicker Zane Gonzalez sustained a leg injury during pregame warmups in Buffalo, which led to the team holding open tryouts among the rest of its gameday roster to find a kicker. The results: not pretty.

There is something both magical and unedifying about seeing some of Planet Earth’s finest athletes unable to kick a ball. Brandon Zylstra, a receiver, won the open tryout and was handed kickoff duties. Without a viable kicker, the Panthers opted to go for it on fourth downs rather than attempt field goals and to try two-point conversions instead of kicking point-afters. They were hammered 31-17 by the Bills.

MVP of the week

Jonathan Taylor, running back, Indianapolis Colts. What can’t Taylor do? Runner, receiver, blocker, the Colts’ do-everything back leads the league in the totally fictitious Just Makes Plays stat. We can quibble back and forth about the universal value of running backs, but Jonathan proved his value to this specific Colts team on Saturday night.

Taylor was the star of the Colts’ 27-17 win over the Patriots, scoring a breakaway touchdown to ice the game after the Patriots rallied from 20-0 down to pull within a score in Indy. Taylor finished with 170 yards rushing on 29 carries, capped with a 67-yard touchdown run to put the game away.

Jonathan Taylor

Colts running back Jonathan Taylor (28) is congratulated by Kylen Granson (83) and Eric Fisher (79) after scoring on a 67-yard touchdown run on Thursday night. Photograph: AJ Mast/AP

The Colts’ offensive line deserves a heaping of credit, too. It was not a dominant performance, but it was an important one. Indianapolis does not ask a whole lot of its line (less so with center Ryan Kelly out on Saturday night). Their job is to run off the ball, mash the defensive front, look to distort the defensive wall, and offer enough daylight for Taylor to dance and wiggle at the second level.

This isn’t an all-singing, all-dancing linemen ballet, with tackles and guards pulling and moving in any number of wonky directions. It’s old-school football, featuring a classic one-cut-and-go running back – perhaps the finest single-cut runner in the league. Against one of the league’s most ferocious fronts, the Colts’ offensive line and back was still able to consistently churn out yards on the ground. And that despite Bill Belichick trying to force the ball into Carson Wentz’s hand. The Colts didn’t need their line to win the game, but just offer enough oomph that it didn’t devolve into a Wentz-or-bust game. The line did its job, and Taylor did the rest.

Stat of the week

The Ravens were without 12 players who count at least $2m against their cap in their 31-30 loss to the Packers: Ronnie Stanley; Marcus Peters; Marlon Humphrey; Calais Campbell; Derek Wolfe; Gus Edwards; DeShon Elliott; Patrick Ricard; Jimmy Smith; Sammy Watkins; Chuck Clark; Lamar Jackson. They count a combined $65m against the cap (36%).

Here are a couple more doozies: Six of the Ravens’ top-seven cornerbacks were out vs. the Packers, and they lost the seventh to an in-game injury; the team was down to its fifth offensive tackle, having to insert practice-squad player David Sharpe into the lineup after another in-game injury; at kickoff, the Ravens had 23 (!) players on either injured reserves or the Covid-19 list. And the game still came down to a winner-take-all two-point play at the end of regulation.

Do we hand John Harbaugh the Coach of the Year award now?

With a roster of cast-offs and lost-looking rookies, the Ravens were able to keep pace with the Packers. Backup quarterback Tyler Huntley was the star of the show. He filled in admirably in place of Lamar Jackson, relying on Mark Andrews, Baltimore’s lone, healthy offensive star to carry the ravaged offense. Huntley posted four touchdowns (two with his arm, two with his legs), and continually found a way to make plays to keep the chains moving and out the Ravens in scoring position. Huntley’s play as a backup this season will earn him starter consideration when he hits free agency this offseason.

Quote of the week

“Christmas in Green Bay. Where else would you rather be?” – Aaron Rodgers after clinching the NFC with the Packers’ 31-30 win over the Ravens

Rodgers has been battling a toe injury that has inhibited his deep and intermediate passing over the past month. Against the Ravens, he was back to his best, picking on a roughed-up defense to the tune of 268 yards, three touchdowns and zero interceptions.

Getting Marquez Valdes-Scantling back in the fold is a game-changer for the Green Bay offense, too. They’ve lacked a second receiver who can consistently toast man-coverage opposite Adams. When healthy, Valdes-Scantling is that guy. Rodgers targeted Valdes-Scantling seven times against the Ravens, the same total as Adams. The receiver finished with 98 yards and a touchdown grab.

With the win, the Packers moved to 11-3, clinching the NFC North and a playoff berth.

Elsewhere around the league

• After a week of back-and-forth between the NFL league office, team owners, and the NFL Players Association, the league has opted to shift to targeted Covid testing. Meaning: Weekly testing of every player is out. Now, only those with symptoms will be tested. Unvaccinated players will still be tested daily. Players will also be able to return from the Covid list sooner than they could under the previous policy. The change changes come two days after the NFL eased its return-to-play protocol for players who test positive, one day after three games were postponed, and at the end of a week in which the virus sent over 100 players to the league’s Covid list.

• The shift in policy is about the obvious: Money. The NFL has no extra weeks built into its schedule to allow for games to be rescheduled. Postponing two games from this weekend to next Tuesday has already caused all sorts of consternation about the fairness of those games (and the games that will follow) for the four teams involved and the general integrity of the league. By reducing testing, the league will see a reduced number of cases, a reduced number of players forced to miss games, and a decreased likelihood of a team being unable to field a team or the league needing to reschedule further games – which would issues of competitive balance, and could impact the league’s TV and sponsorship deals.

• When will NFL players learn not to mess with the Football Gods? After Vegas’ debacle in Kansas City, you’d have been forgiven for thinking it would be a while until a side attempted the road-team-stomps-on-the-home-teams-logo routine. Nope. The Titans took it upon themselves to dance all over the Steelers’ logo during the pre-game warm-ups. Down 13-3 at half-time, the Steelers came from behind to clinch a late 19-13 win. Over the last three weeks, teams that have stomped on an opposing team’s logo have been outscored 67-22.

• This weekend’s AFC results mean: If the Kansas City Chiefs win out, they will be the number one seed in the conference. The Chiefs have the Steelers, Bengals, and Broncos left on the schedule. If they win all three remaining games, they will take the number one seed and the sole bye week heading into the playoffs … just as everyone thought a month-and-a-half ago.

• Tua Tagovailoa overcame an uneven performance to lead the Dolphins to their sixth consecutive victory. Tagovailoa twice led the Dolphins back from a 10-point deficit against the Jets. He also led an impressive bounce-back drive after tossing an ugly-looking pick-six late in the game. The Dolphins are now 7-7, just one game behind the Bills in the AFC East and well and truly in the playoff picture.

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