Ask any NFL player or coach and to a man they will insist there is no such thing as an ugly win.
Many will disagree, and that’s understandable. However, the reality is those same coaches and players will always talk about how hard it is to win a game in a league that prides itself because of the number of one-score games there are.
Prior to this week’s Monday night games, seven of the 12 played were one-score games with three decided by a field goal or less.
We that watch should realize the fine line that exists between winning and losing. It’s why, no matter how a game unfolds, a win is a win is a win.
That was surely the case Sunday in the battle of the backup quarterbacks at SoFi Stadium as the Cardinals with Colt McCoy defeated the Super Bowl champion Rams with John Wolford, 27-17.
The win will make watching Hard Knocks on Wednesday a lot more fun, especially knowing the Rams are in dead last in the division at 3-6.
The Cardinals prevailed without left tackle D.J. Humphries, cornerback Byron Murphy Jr. and kicker Matt Prater. They prevailed despite losing tight end Zach Ertz to a knee injury after he had a 12-yard reception on the team’s first possession of the game.
They did it with Josh Jones playing his second game in three weeks with Humphries affected by a back injury. He had a couple rough plays, including a missed block that resulted in McCoy being injured in the third quarter, but the team overcame them.
The gritty McCoy returned to the game and later threaded a perfect pass to wide receiver Rondale Moore, who made a spectacular 26-yard catch on fourth-and-3 that led to the Cardinals increasing their lead to 24-10 with 7:41 to play in the game. We can’t help but mention the Cardinals were in position to go for it on fourth down because Moore turned one of those “sideways” passes fans criticize into a 14-yard gain on third-and-17.
They did it on that possession after the Rams had cut the deficit to 17-10 after defensive end J.J. Watt briefly lost his mind with two penalties that took the Rams from what would have been third-and-goal from the 14-yard line to third-and-goal from the 4.
They did it with rookie Lecitus Smith battling at right guard for the second consecutive week, this time in his first NFL start and with Rashaad Coward and Cody Ford both playing left guard. Ford was listed with an illness that was COVID and did not practice Wednesday (estimated) and Thursday and was limited Friday. Coward was elevated to the roster from the practice squad Saturday and started, playing a majority of those snaps.
He was signed by the Cardinals on Aug. 2 after being cut by the Falcons on June 2 and was signed to the practice squad a day after being released in the roster reduction to 53 players.
Even Coward couldn’t escape this year’s injury infestation and was placed on the practice-squad injured list Sept. 14 and released with an injury settlement five days later. He was brought back to the practice squad Nov. 2. He had started a total of 15 games with the Bears in 2019 and 2020.
They did it with their fourth kicker of the season after Prater was added to the injury report Friday with an illness. He had missed three games earlier in the season because of a right hip injury.
Tristan Vizcaino, who followed Matt Ammendola and Rodrigo Blankenship (who, by the way, had been waived with an injury settlement Nov. 2), had a tryout with the Cardinals Friday, Nov. 4, and the Cardinals made a quick call late in the week to protect themselves. Fortunately, Vizcaino, whose last team was the Patriots, lives in the L.A. area, and didn’t have to travel far after being signed to the roster Saturday.
Wearing the now very familiar No. 15 jersey, he was perfect on three extra points and nailed two field goals, one that tied the game 3-3 in the first quarter and then a 46-yarder that gave the Cardinals a three-score lead at 27-10 with 3:44 remaining in the game.
That came after safety Budda Baker’s 53-yard interception return from the 22-yard line four plays earlier. Baker had four tackles (three solo) and a pass defensed in a game coach Kliff Kingsbury had ruled him out from on Wednesday.
They did it thanks to a key possession late in the first half after the Cardinals took a 10-3 lead on a James Conner 4-yard run. There were four completions to wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins in that 66-yard drive and McCoy ran for first downs on third-and-2 and fourth-and-1, passing the chains by one yard each time.
Four plays later, rookie linebacker Myjai Sanders hit Wolford as he attempted to pass and defensive J.J. Watt picked it up quickly and was headed for an easy touchdown. Normally, in those close situations, the officials let it play out as a fumble, knowing there will be a replay review if it was a pass attempt. Not this time. The whistle blew for an incomplete pass.
Because it was in the last two minutes, the play was automatically reviewed and ruled a fumble. While Watt got the recovery at the 30-yard line, there could be no advance of the ball.
My sense is the Red Sea figured they were snake-bit at that point. Not this time. McCoy hit Moore for 13, Conner ran for five, Moore had another reception for six and after an incomplete pass, the mostly invisible A.J. Green scored on a 6-yard pass and the Cardinals led 17-3 with 24 seconds remaining in the half.
Green had two receptions in the game for 10 yards to give him 12 for 66 this season, but he did have the 2-point conversion catch that tied the game against the Raiders with no time remaining and sent it to overtime. Aside from the touchdown Sunday, he had a key catch for four yards on fourth-and-2 in the first field-goal drive.
McCoy said of Green, “Listen, I love A.J. Green. He’s faced some adversity this year and he’s responded like a true pro. You talk about pros, A.J. Green’s a pro. I trust him, I know the team trusts him and the coaches trust him and I’m thankful that he was able to make some plays today and I knew he would. I’m not surprised at all.”
“He has not blinked through everything, all the adversity, all the things going on,” Kingsbury said. “He just continues to work hard and do his job and treat people the right way. So, I am a huge A.J. fan and hopefully we can get him more involved as the season goes on.”
The touchdown throw was supposed to go to Hopkins, but McCoy noticed what the matchup was for Green. McCoy said, “It’s like the grocery store line. There’s more people over there; let’s throw it over here.”
It’s just good to know that McCoy, the classic every man, understands about lines at the grocery store.
Meanwhile, Green, who had a total of one snap in two of the last three games, said, “It’s very difficult. I’ve been the guy for the last decade. It’s hard to come off the field. But I understand my role. I know what I can still do, I know I can still play at a high level. Sometimes you can’t control it. You just have to be ready.”
Most important, McCoy, who is now 3-1 as a Cardinals starter, was smart with the football and there were no turnovers. He passed on the first 11 plays of the game and averaged only 9.2 yards per completion in the game, but was 26-for-37 for 238 yards and the touchdown to Green.
Of his 37 attempts, 27 were targeted for Hopkins or Moore. Hopkins caught 10 of his 14 for 98 yards, while Moore was 9-for-13 for 94 yards. The duo accounted for 192 of the team’s 298 yards.
Kingsbury said, “That’s a credit to him, man, to be able to go out there and do that. First playing time of the season, really didn’t do much in training camp, had a couple injuries come up, had an injury to start the season and still be able to settle in and just get the ball out, avoid the negative plays, be efficient, do all those things. The way he led and professionalism; there early, stayed late, communication just through the roof. It was awesome to see.
“We were really good in the first half avoiding any negative plays. We had 38 snaps and only one negative play. In the second half, we had those two big penalties to start and then the sack when we were driving, which we have to avoid those, but he does a great job pre-snap just recognizing, getting it out quick and getting to those playmakers. That’s been his deal since he’s played.”
McCoy continuing to play can’t be overstated as well as Baker being on the field. When asked about the energy the team showcased, Kingsbury said, “I think Colt had a lot to do with it on offense, just his presence, how he carried himself. Being 36, he understands opportunities for him don’t come along very often. So I thought all week during practice guys felt that there was a sense of urgency: ‘Hey, I’m going to go out and show what I can do, it’s my opportunity.’ And he had that type of energy.
“I think it carried over and then Budda was a huge part of the defensive energy. Beginning of the week, everybody told me there’s no chance he can play; it’s going to be three weeks. And then he just kept working, kept working. He went out there and played and that really inspired the entire team.”
For his part, McCoy said he wasn’t sure if his injury was to the knee or hamstring.
“I still don’t know,” he said. “I think I’m going to be alright. We’ll see. The knee just banged on the turf and then I don’t know if I cramped up or. I don’t know. We’ll see. I’m going to take some tests tomorrow.”
As for being limited after returning, he said. “It didn’t affect me throwing the football, but if I needed to move and go full speed, I don’t know. I’m glad I didn’t have to do that.”
The offense knew the challenge they faced against the Rams defense and Aaron Donald.
McCoy said, “I just tried to preach all week long that they have the best player in the game on their defense. They’re a very good pass-rush [team], and if the ball doesn’t come out on time in rhythm, we’re not going to win the game. And I think the execution side of what we did offensively worked. There was a lot that played into it. I thought the offensive line did an outstanding job. When D.J. went down during the week, I was playing with four guys I’ve never played with before. And so, I just wanted to take care of them. They took care of me, they played outstanding.
“And once we sort of established the passing game and getting the ball out on time, James hit some nice holes and we were efficient. I can be better, but I just felt like overall, once the game kind of settled in, I had a pretty good grasp of what we were trying to accomplish on offense.”
Wolford, meanwhile, was 24-for-36 for 212 yards and a touchdown, a total inflated by being 9-for-9 for 65 yards and a score on the final meaningless possession of the game. Without those numbers, he was 15-for-27 for 147 yards. He also rushed for only three yards on three attempts.
The Rams totaled only 186 yards prior to that drive and had 77 at halftime. On their seven non-scoring possessions, the Rams ran 28 plays for 75 yards and were 3-for-11 on third down in the game.
Wide receiver Cooper Kupp had only three receptions for minus-1 yard and left the game with an ankle injury in the fourth quarter.
No, it wasn’t pretty. But a team desperate for a victory got one against a team that was the toast of the football world exactly nine months ago and is now wondering how it could have crashed so quickly.
As for the Cardinals, Kingsbury acknowledged, “It’s been a struggle, there’s no doubt this season. We haven’t played up to our standards yet, or coached, and that’s something that we’ll continue to work to do. But to come here (against) another team that was struggling and trying to find an identity, kind of like ourselves, and find a way to get it done, it’s a good step in the right direction.”
Concluded McCoy, “Anytime you win in the division, it’s just hard. You know each other, you know the opponent, it’s hard. We got another one coming up this week and a place that we’ve never played before. So we really have to buckle down and get ready for that. And then it’s week-to-week for us. We know we’re 4-6 and we just have to go execute and play hard.”
Even if it is, well, ugly at times.
Don’t hesitate to comment or ask questions on Twitter @hbalzer721 or email me: firstname.lastname@example.org