Prolific passing games in Cardinals-Rams unbeaten showdown
INGLEWOOD, Calif. (AP) — Kliff Kingsbury knows more than enough about offensive football to appreciate — and to fear — what the Los Angeles Rams have done in the first three games of Sean McVay’s partnership with Matthew Stafford.
“It’s kind of the perfect storm when you get a play-caller like McVay and a guy like (Stafford) who has played at such a high level for so long,” the Arizona head coach said. “They’ve really got it going.”
But Kingsbury and Kyler Murray are rolling as well for the Cardinals, and the NFC West rivals’ meeting on Sunday is more than an eye-catching showdown between unbeaten teams. It’s a chance to see two of the sport’s top passing offenses trading touchdowns for what both teams expect to be a difficult afternoon.
“There’s a reason they’re a 3-0 football team,” Stafford said.
Stafford has been the NFC’s Offensive Player of the Week twice already this season in his sensational start with Los Angeles (3-0). He has passed for 942 yards and nine touchdowns with just one interception while taking a fluid command of the offense designed by McVay.
But Murray has racked up 1,005 yards and seven touchdowns while leading the Cardinals, showing off his increasing maturity and decision-making skills at a key point for the Cardinals’ hopes of ending their five-year playoff drought.
Both quarterbacks are throwing to two of the most impressive receiving groups in the NFL, too.
Stafford already has a formidable connection with Cooper Kupp, the league’s leading receiver and the NFC’s Offensive Player of the Month for September. Steady Robert Woods, deep threat DeSean Jackson and tight end Tyler Higbee have all made game-changing plays during the Rams’ roll to three consecutive wins over 2020 playoff teams while trailing for only a grand total of 124 seconds.
The Cardinals’ road has been a bit rockier, but similarly impressive. Murray is throwing to DeAndre Hopkins, A.J. Green and Christian Kirk in a passing game that’s been the third-most productive in the league.
“Kyler is playing out of this world, and those guys on the outside are making great catches and getting open,” Stafford said. “It’s a tough, tough task for our defense.”
McVay has never lost to the Cardinals, going 8-0 in his coaching career. He dismisses the record as a meaningless statistical quirk, but the Cardinals know a road victory over LA would do wonders for their status as serious contenders.
Arizona was blown out by a combined 132 points in its first five meetings with McVay, but the past three losses have been by only a combined 29 points.
When asked if the Cards were more prepared to face the Rams this season than in previous campaigns, Murray swiftly replied: “It’s not even a question. Night and day.”
HE KNOWS THEM
Although Stafford is new to the NFC West, he isn’t new to facing the Cardinals: Thanks to various scheduling quirks, Stafford’s Detroit Lions played Arizona in each of the past four seasons and in eight of the past nine years. He is 3-4-1 in his career against the Cardinals, the opponent he has faced more often than any team outside the Lions’ NFC North.
“I feel like I’ve played them a bunch in my career, and always a big challenge whether we were going to their place or they were coming to Detroit,” said Stafford, who has passed for 1,943 yards with 12 touchdowns and eight interceptions against the Cards. “Always a challenge led by an extremely high-powered offense now.”
MURRAY GETTING PRAISE
Murray’s performance in the season’s first three games has vaulted the Cardinals quarterback into way-too-early MVP talk right alongside Stafford.
Murray was among the betting favorites after Week 3’s games, according to FanDuel Sportsbook. His third NFL season is off to a great start with prolific passing performances and three TD runs.
Murray downplayed the high praise, even if he didn’t necessarily shy away from it.
“What is it, Week 4?,” Murray said. “It is what it is. It’s a long season. I was raised and taught that if you win as a team, the individual accolades will come. That’s how I treated it in high school, that’s how I treated it when I won the Heisman, and same thing now.”
Kingsbury sees turnovers as a key factor for becoming a contender. After the Cardinals finished his first two seasons with a minus-1 turnover differential, they’re a plus-3 this season.
The Rams have three interceptions in their first three games this season, and All-Pro cornerback Jalen Ramsey is having a monster year already as both a shutdown pass defender and an all-around menace to offenses.
“Last year, what stood out was we threw a pick-six in both games, and that ultimately was the difference,” Kingsbury said. “You can’t do that against those teams. This past week, they had zero penalties, zero turnovers. They’re playing at a very high level.”
GAME RESPECT GAME
Cardinals cornerback Byron Murphy Jr. had perhaps the best game of his three-year NFL career during last week’s win over the Jaguars, grabbing two interceptions and returning one for a crucial touchdown. The performance earned him NFC Defensive Player of the Week honors.
One of Murphy’s football influences will be on the opposing sideline Sunday: Murphy had high praise for Ramsey, the Rams’ two-time All-Pro.
“Much respect. I think he’s the best right now,” Murphy said. “I always watch his film to see his little DB techniques and all that. That’s someone I watch and look up to as a defensive back.”
AP Sports Writer David Brandt in Phoenix contributed to this report.
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