INGLEWOOD, Calif. — Sometimes, when a team is stripped of some of its star players due to injuries, new and backups are asked to step in and deliver and all you hear is that you probably don’t have a chance in hell to win, a funny thing happens.
It can galvanize a team. It can combine their total forces and create something special, even if just for one game.
That something happened to the Cardinals here on Sunday during their 27-17 victory over the defending Super Bowl champion Rams at SoFi Stadium.
Where it takes them from here is anyone’s guess. The Cardinals improved to 4-6, hardly good enough to start mailing out the ticket payments for the playoffs. But they also scored their first victory within the NFC West with two left to play against the rival 49ers, whom they meet a week for Monday night in Mexico City.
If they can find a way to keep the magic working from Sunday over the remaining seven weeks, maybe the Cardinals still have a chance. They may have to win at least five or six of their final seven to honestly have a shot, and they may also have to hope the NFC as a whole continues to play spotty, erratic football down the stretch.
But without a win Sunday, none of that would have mattered.
Colt McCoy started at quarterback in place of Kyler Murray, who wasn’t able to play because of a tender hamstring, and he led a well-balanced effort by completing 26 of 37 passes for 238 yards and a touchdown while leading Arizona on five scoring drives overall.
“It was just a lot of adversity coming into this game and I’m proud to be a part of a team that never quits and fights,” said McCoy, who was playing behind four new starters on the offensive line. “The defense played great, they gave us some turnovers. This was a huge win for us. A huge win.
“It’s a proud group. We work hard. We feel like we’re better than our record. But it is what it ius. It’s the NFL. You’ve got to make more plays than they do and that’s what we did today.”
It’s not like the Rams have been playing like Super Bowl champs lately, of course. They were also without their starting quarterback, Matthew Stafford, who is recovering from a concussion, and had to start backup John Wolford. They haven’t been able to block anybody, establish any sort of a run game and even the great Cooper Kupp, who would leave the game late with an ankle injury, couldn’t make a difference.
The Cardinals held him to three receptions for minus-1 yard, if you can believe that.
Then again, who in their right mind expected to see All-Pro safety Budda Baker on the field for the Cardinals. He was dealing with a painful high ankle sprain that was supposed to keep him sidelined for three weeks. Bot only did he start, but played a ton and he also made an interception to help seal the deal over the Rams.
“This is obviously a great win,” inside linebacker Isaiah Simmons said. “But this one in particular, having Kyler not playing, we all have a lot of faith in Colt and we all love Colt, but for us to do it when it doesn’t look too good on paper I believe it’s just a testament of how our team can play together.
“When you play together as a team, maybe you can overcome pieces being gone. I just felt our team chemistry today, just our cohesiveness, is what was able to help us play as well as we did.”
Adversity, after all, can force a group to come together for the common cause.
“I wouldn’t say it forced us, but I would say it definitely brought it more to our attention,” said Simmons, who finished with seven tackles, one for loss, and a pass breakup. “We knew it was something that was evident that we needed to do. We knew we needed to play better complimentary football this year. I just feel like today was a huge step in doing that.”
They did it despite playing without their No1 cornerback, Byron Murphy Jr., who has been dealing with a strained back. They did it despite being without their mainstay at left tackle, D.J. Humphries, who has also been dealing with an achy back. They even had to sign yet another emergency kicker, Tristan Vizcaino, to come in at the last minute for veteran Matt Prater, who had a setback with his nagging right hip.
Not only that, but after Vizcaino kicked the first of two fields on Arizona’s first possession of the game, the Cardinals also lost savvy tight end Zach Ertz to a knee injury. Coach Kliff Kingsbury didn’t immediately know the severity of the situation, but knows it can’t be good, saying, “You hate to see that.”
When players go down, others must step up. Running back James Conner and wide receiver A.J. Green were just two of many who did. Conner, who has been wrecked by injuries most of the season, had a season-high 21 carries for 69 yards and two touchdowns. It was the first time he’s found the end zone via the run since Week 1.
“I think it was important for sure,” Conner said. “Just a blessing to be out there and be healthy. Been a long time coming since I’ve been able to go full speed and I just tried to take full advantage of it today.”
After being left to twist in the wind the past few weeks with little to no playing time, the veteran Green also played a pivotal role in the win. He caught a clutch pass on a gutsy fourth down call early in the game and at the end of the first half, hauled in a a spectacular catch on a pass from McCoy that gave the Cardinals a 17-3 halftime lead.
“This game is more than X’s and O’s sometimes,” Green said. “Some things are out of my control. We all have to have that tough conversation some time but to me, I’ve said I just want you to be honest with me. That’s what they did. They’ve been very honest with me, and I just put the work in and go out there and see what happens.”
There was a calm in he middle of a storm on Sunday for the Cardinals and somehow, they made it count in their favor. Kingsbury, though, had a feeling it would.
“I think Colt had a lot to do with it on offense, just his presence, how he carried himself,” Kingsbury said. “Being 36, he understands the opportunities don’t come along very often for him, so I thought all week during practice, guys felt that. Like, there was a sense of urgency where it was like, ‘Hey, I’m going to go out, I’m going to show what I can do, and this is my opportunity.’
“When you have that type of energy, I think it carries over. And then Budda was a huge part of the defensive energy when earlier in the week everybody was telling me there’s no chance he would be able to play. It’s going to be three weeks and then he just kept working, kept working. I know he was still hurting, but he went out there and played and inspired the entire team.”
It was special on Sunday, but we’ll see how long special lasts.
Have an opinion on the Arizona Cardinals? Reach McManaman at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @azbobbymac. Listen to him live on Fox Sports 910-AM every Tuesday afternoon at 3:30 on Calling All Sports with Roc and Manuch.
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This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Analysis: Cardinals backups find chemistry in win over Rams, keep season hopes alive