CLEVELAND -- If there were any lingering questions about who the scariest team in the NFC is, then they just got answered. The Packers, Buccaneers and Cowboys have all the glitz and glamour going for them these days. The Arizona Cardinals, on the other hand, have the look of a team that is capable of handling all those contenders at the moment. That's how well they played in pummeling the Cleveland Browns on a dreary, blustery Sunday afternoon inside FirstEnergy Stadium.
It wasn't merely the final score -- a 37-14 win for Arizona. It was that both teams came into this contest undermanned and only one acted as if those setbacks didn't matter. A slew of positive COVID-19 cases left the Cardinals without head coach Kliff Kingsbury, a few other assistant coaches and veteran defensive linemen Corey Peters and Chandler Jones. After this game ended, it was fair to wonder how brutal the outcome would've been if Arizona actually had shown up at full strength.
There were several reasons why the Cardinals could've suffered their first loss of the season this past weekend. Instead, they revealed why they're now 6-0 and the only undefeated remaining in the NFL.
"It is just the resiliency of this team," linebacker Jordan Hicks said. "We come out here every single day, every week, and we don't worry about what's going on around us. We focus on ourselves. Executing the game plan, and putting ourselves in positions to execute the details of the game plan the coaches are giving us. We don't waver. When you see this team and when you see the leadership of this team, I think that's the mark that's been imprinted at this point."
There may be some skeptics who say the Cardinals received a gift on the way to maintaining their perfect record. The Browns were missing some key players on their roster -- they were without offensive tackles Jedrick Wills and Jack Conklin as well as star running back Nick Chubb -- but that wouldn't be fair. The Cardinals have scored at least 30 points in five of those wins. They've also already beaten two NFC West rivals, the San Francisco 49ers and the Los Angeles Rams, in what is unquestionably the toughest division in football.
It might be tough to buy into the Cardinals because they don't have Aaron Rodgers or Tom Brady or a massive media market as their playground, as is the case with the Rams. However, six wins is six wins. We knew the Cardinals had an electric offense heading into this season, led by steadily maturing quarterback Kyler Murray. What's becoming more apparent with each passing week is how much the rest of the team has grown up around that unit.
The Cardinals don't win this kind of game if they don't have the right combination of character and culture. Young, talented teams would often fold without their head coach and essential personnel. The Cardinals responded to such adversity by jumping on the Browns early and throttling them at every possible opportunity. The only real optimism Cleveland enjoyed came when quarterback Baker Mayfield connected with wide receiver Donovan People-Jones on a Hail Mary attempt right before halftime.
That play made the score 23-14. It felt like the Cardinals could've been up by 21 points if they had converted a couple red-zone opportunities into touchdowns instead of settling for field goals.
"The boys performed," said Cardinals defensive coordinator Vance Joseph, who served as Arizona's interim head coach in this game. "This staff is amazing. It's a great football staff. It's our third year all together and that helps -- having continuity like this. Kliff, obviously with his offense, has coaches to call as he would call it. We didn't miss a beat offensively. It was aggressive. It was the way Kliff would have called the game. Obviously on defense, I was there and (Cardinals Asst. HC/Special Teams Coordinator) Jeff (Rodgers) was there on [special] teams. Nothing was different from the first five weeks."
The Cardinals thrived because assistant wide receivers coach Spencer Whipple and run game coordinator/offensive line coach Sean Kugler stepped in and led the offense in Kingsbury's absence. Murray threw for 229 yards and four touchdowns while Arizona controlled the football for just over 34 minutes. The defense was similarly impressive. The Cardinals sacked Mayfield five times, forced three turnovers and limited the Browns to only three conversions in 10 third-down situations.
That defense is proving to be the difference between Arizona being a solid team and one with grand possibilities. There is plenty of talent -- including Pro Bowl safety Budda Baker -- but it's the combination of assets in this unit that makes it so intriguing. The Cardinals have promising younger players like cornerback Byron Murphy and linebackers Isaiah Simmons and Zaven Collins. They also have established veterans like Jones and defensive end J.J. Watt, who signed with the team during the offseason after 10 seasons with the Houston Texans.
This isn't merely a team that is relying on the offensive creativity of Kingsbury and the brilliance of Murray. It's built to deal with the undeniable challenges that exist for any franchise that wants to claim the NFC championship. You're not beating Rodgers, Brady or Matthew Stafford through shootouts alone. You'd better have a plan for how to control them, which seems to be the case in Arizona right now.
Just as importantly, an emerging team better have the right blend of confidence and mental toughness. That also showed through on Sunday.
"The odds seemed kind of stacked against us," Murray said. "For us, it was pretty much an opportunity to come out here and prove ourselves against a good team. We had to come out here and handle it the way we needed to handle it. That is a good team over there. We prepared well for them."
There are more daunting challenges coming for the Cardinals. They'll meet Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers in two weeks. The Cowboys are on the schedule as well, and there are still four more games remaining against NFC West opponents. That explains why the Cardinals aren't spending too much time trumpeting their early success or playing the familiar card of rising teams, the one that has plenty to do with nobody really believing them.
The Cardinals know they're good. They're also enjoying the ride. That much was clear in the way coaches and players embraced after this contest, and why somebody dialed up Kingsbury on FaceTime and included him in the postgame locker room celebration. Outside linebacker Markus Golden, who played well in place of Jones, said the coaching staff awarded everybody in the room with a game ball on Sunday. They planned on giving one to Kingsbury once they returned home to Arizona.
You really can't blame the Cardinals for making sure everybody received ample credit for this one. This a game that could've turned ugly in an instant, as the prior week hinted that this was the perfect time for Arizona to fall. Instead, the Cardinals gave us one more reason to believe they're for real this year. From all indications, this won't be the last time they make such a strong impression this season.