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What the Arizona Cardinals did — going without starting quarterback Kyler Murray or wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins or A. J. Green and losing running back Chase Edmonds and guards Justin Pugh and Max Garcia during the game — and still steamrolling the San Francisco 49ers was as impressive a performance as there was on Sunday.
There simply has been no pause button for the Cardinals this season, despite ample opportunities to hit one.
And it leads to two questions:
Have the Cardinals claimed the upper hand in the NFC West, despite a seemingly tenuous one-game lead?
And are the 49ers, considered a playoff contender before the season, even a good team?
We start with the Cardinals and backup quarterback Colt McCoy. He said he was finally certain he was starting on the team’s flight to Northern California Saturday and responded much the same way this team responded when coach Kliff Kingsbury missed the Cleveland game because of COVID, and when defensive end Chandler Jones missed games, and when J.J. Watt was lost for the season. By winning.
“I thought Kliff called a great game. He got me in a rhythm early, got me some completions early, and then it kind of slowed down for me and I felt good,” McCoy said. “I told the offensive line, like, ‘Look, I’m getting the ball out. Receivers, I’m getting the ball out. I’m not going to hold onto this ball and take sacks.
“This front is good. They’ve played a lot of good football. When they get going, they’re hard to beat. So I just wanted to get the ball out. And then when we did some play action and took our shots, they worked and we hit on a couple of screens that work, and we found a way to win.”
When Edmonds suffered an ankle sprain, very possibly one that will keep him out of the lineup for several weeks, on the first play of the game, the Cardinals turned to James Connor. And Connor scored three touchdowns — two rushing and one on a 45-yard reception — to take over the NFL TD lead with 11.
“It’s been a fun group to be around,” Kingsbury said. “No matter who’s playing, who we plug in, they show up, they work hard. It was great to get a full week of practice back in and get in our routine. And I thought we practiced really well and I expected us to play well. It was just fun to watch, fun to be around those guys.”
The Cardinals have only a one-game lead over the Los Angeles Rams and the two teams meet Dec. 13 in Glendale, Ariz. But with a victory over the Rams in Los Angeles earlier this season, the advantage is clearly with the Cardinals.
The 49ers, meanwhile, are floundering. They’ve been swept by Arizona and haven’t beaten a team with a winning record this season.
They seemed undisciplined in trying to stop the run and that bled into an incident with cornerback Josh Norman, who got into an altercation with Kingsbury along the Cardinals’ sideline.
“It was extremely disappointing,” coach Kyle Shanahan said of his defense giving up 163 rushing yards. “I don’t think we tackled very well. I didn’t think we had 11 guys swarming to the ball enough. I think we made it pretty easy on those guys.”
Norman, meanwhile, had that episode.
“Josh told me that some of their coaches were talking to him, so he was talking back,” Shanahan said. “Then he told me he got headbutted by one of their offensive linemen. And then he said he got the taunting penalty.
“I wanted him to get out right there. I wanted him to cool down a little bit. Then in the third quarter, we just kept Dre [Kirkpatrick] in, which wasn’t my decision, but I was okay with it.”
Sam Darnold gets no endorsement
Carolina quarterback Sam Darnold is playing like, well, Sam Darnold.
On Sunday he threw three interceptions, including a pick six, and had a QB rating of — you won’t believe this — 26.3 (which is awful).
Darnold has not thrown a TD pass in three games but has 4 interceptions. So after a promising start to the season, in which he threw 3 TD passes and 1 interception, Darnold is now fighting for his job.
And coach Matt Rhule isn’t exactly endorsing him.
“Right now, we’re focused on him and his health,” Rhule said Monday morning. “Those of us at the game yesterday and watched it, we know, I think Sam would be the first to tell you that wasn’t good enough from the quarterback position.
“We had guys open, we had opportunities that we weren’t able to connect on. Too many batted balls. That can’t happen at this level. And obviously three give-aways. The play at that position has to be better … Yesterday was obviously not the best.”
The Panthers are checking Darnold’s shoulder with an MRI on Monday. It’s the second consecutive week that’s happened. But Rhule was asked whether Darnold will be the starter, if he is healthy.
“I’d have to see him this week. I’d have to see him on Wednesday and see what does healthy look like,” Rhule said. “We’ve been on this journey with him as Sam tries to take the next step. I thought he took that step last week, took a step back this week. Why? We have to figure that out.”
Baker Mayfield puts solid cap on rough week
The Odell Beckham Jr. soap opera last week featured an unsuspecting protagonist in quarterback Baker Mayfield.
Mayfield had a solid game Sunday in completing 14 passes, including 2 TD passes without a turnover and it sounded afterward that he’s relieved Beckham, who complained through various means about not getting the football when he was open, will be cut Monday.
“I wish him well, I really do,” Mayfield said. “My feelings haven’t changed. I wish him well. From a personal standpoint, he’s a good friend of mine. We still haven’t talked, but that doesn’t change things. I wish him well. I wish him the best in his career, but I’m worried about the guys in our locker room.
“I’m proud of these guys, how they were able to focus, despite all the (bleep) that was going on this week.”
Effusive Bill Belichick is the best Bill Belichick
Bill Belichick isn’t typically, shall we say, effusive about many things. Remember, this is the guy who often said Tom Brady is “a good quarterback.”
But after his defense rolled over the Carolina Panthers and the New England Patriots coach watched the tape overnight and Monday, he was as complimentary of the unit as he’s been this season.
“First of all, I just got to give the defensive coaching staff and players a lot of credit,” Belichick said. “They were well prepared. They read their keys well, played physical and aggressive, took advantage of some opportunities.
“Playing from ahead, stopping the run and creating some passing distances was advantageous for us as well. In general, I thought they did a good job. The two big stops after the turnovers after the sudden change, I thought those were really important series for us.
“When the Panthers got down there and they were getting into the scoring zone, the turnover there from J.C. [Jackson] and then the interception in the end zone, those are obviously points-saving plays and turned into a seven-point scoring play for us on the interception return. Of course, Jamie’s [Collins] play was just a tremendous play. I don’t know how many athletes could make that catch, but it was a highlight play for sure.
“Consistency, playing on all three downs well was really big for us. Players did a great job.”
Jeepers, fair to say Belichick was pleased.
Follow on Twitter: @ArmandoSalguero