Kyler Murray dazzles in his own unpredictable way.
Sure, there are other N.F.L. quarterbacks who thrill. Lamar Jackson’s runs tempt defenses to forget the threat of his arm. Patrick Mahomes fuses multiple sports in his interpretation of the position. Josh Allen and Justin Herbert’s accuracy on shockingly long throws invigorate.
But no one zigs and zags and zigs again with such mesmerizing abandon as Murray, the Arizona Cardinals’ quarterback. His mostly flawless performance on Sunday in a 33-22 win against the Chicago Bears, in which he had two passing touchdowns and two running touchdowns, provided Week 13’s clearest takeaway:
The Cardinals’ conservative approach to Kyler Murray’s return will pay off.
The urge to hurry Murray, a 5-foot-10, 207-pound turbine, back onto the field from an ankle injury that had kept him out after Week 8 had to be overwhelming for the Cardinals.
This is the same team that started 5-2 in 2020 only to free-fall to 8-8 and miss the playoffs. With Murray, Arizona had a seven-game win streak to start the season. Without him, the team was 2-1, losing to the Carolina Panthers and playing the reeling Seattle Seahawks a bit too close on the road.
Perhaps no head coach’s seat was hotter than Kliff Kingsbury’s entering the season, and in a cutthroat division, the N.F.C. West, sitting Murray through November could have started a second-half spiral that pointed fingers at the coach.
But the Cardinals (10-2) resisted rushing Murray back, and while other quarterbacks battle pinkie toe injuries (Aaron Rodgers), pinkie finger injuries (Joe Burrow) and everything in between, Murray looked reinvigorated in his return.
There was no rust. Receiver DeAndre Hopkins was also back from a hamstring injury, and he and Murray wasted no time reconnecting. On fourth-and-2, four minutes into the game, Murray laced a 20-yard strike to Hopkins in stride for a touchdown catch.
As a runner, Murray did not appear to nurse his ankle. On third-and-goal on the very next drive, with Bears defensive end Robert Quinn breathing down his neck, Murray took off for a 9-yard touchdown run.
This score was quintessential Murray, too, freezing the Bears (4-8) with a pump fake and a stutter step on that ankle to get to the pylon.
In the second half, Murray’s third-and-1 scramble for 14 yards — again taking off with no qualms — led to a field goal that gave the Cardinals a 24-7 lead. And the Cardinals put the Bears away with 6 minutes 23 seconds left on Murray’s second touchdown run. He brilliantly held his mesh point on a run fake until the last moment to freeze defensive end Trevis Gipson before pulling the ball and whip-snapping into the end zone.
There’s no tried-and-true handbook for dealing with a high ankle sprain. Other quarterbacks have returned sooner, and each injury is unique. Murray took the full month to recover because the Cardinals need him and the creative juking reminiscent of Allen Iverson that can carry Arizona deep into the playoffs.
2021 N.F.L. Season News and Analysis
Obviously, all the starting and stopping can put a lot of stress on Murray’s ankles. Rushing him back could have meant that he’d be 50 to 75 percent healthy the rest of the way — not ideal in a conference with Tom Brady and Rodgers, or in a regular season with a newly added 17th game. Now the Cardinals are positioned to do exactly what they could not in 2020: finish strong.
Murray can’t do it alone. Any team with any realistic shot at a Super Bowl needs legitimate stars on defense, and despite losing J.J. Watt for the season, that’s not a problem in Arizona. The Cardinals intercepted Bears quarterback Andy Dalton four times with safety Budda Baker returning his pick 77 yards. Baker has been phenomenal all season. Perhaps no defensive back in the sport is as physical in the run game and breaks so aggressively on balls in the secondary.
Up front, Chandler Jones remains one of the game’s most underrated players. All Jones, the Cardinals’ edge rusher, has done is total 105½ sacks in 134 career games, and his tip of a pass led to one of Dalton’s interceptions.
Not that Bears fans needed any more salt in their wounds, but it is worth noting that nine years ago they drafted Boise State outside linebacker Shea McClellin 19th overall instead of Jones, who went two picks later to the New England Patriots. McClellin’s N.F.L. career ended in 2016.
The Cardinals’ management of their roster, especially in contrast with the Bears, has Arizona in the driver’s seat heading into the final leg of the regular season.
The Chargers are sticking with what works.
Once again, the grim reaper appeared to be poking his head out from the tunnel, typical for how seasons tended to end for the San Diego and Los Angeles Chargers for an entire generation.
Yet on Sunday, the Chargers again suggested that those days are behind them under Coach Brandon Staley. After nearly squandering a 24-point lead, the Chargers pulled away from the Cincinnati Bengals for a crucial 41-22 win. Quarterback Justin Herbert outdueled Joe Burrow, and now the Chargers (7-5), who began the day a game back of Kansas City, can still harbor realistic hopes of winning the cluttered A.F.C. West.
With his team going 3-4 over its last seven games, Staley has tried to lift the curse by remaining aggressive in his play-calling. On the game’s first drive, the Chargers went for it on fourth-and-goal and Herbert connected with receiver Keenan Allen for one of his two touchdown passes to the team’s top wideout.
With 10 minutes remaining in the first half, Herbert lofted a 44-yard score to the deep threat Jalen Guyton, who used a nifty shimmy and shake on his route to break free. According to Next Gen Stats, the ball traveled 61.2 yards in the air, the second-longest for any quarterback this season.
This score gave the Chargers a 24-0 lead. Promptly, everything started to go wrong. The Bengals (7-5) clawed their way back into the game thanks to three Los Angeles turnovers. Two fumbles by running back Austin Ekeler sandwiched a Herbert interception late in the second quarter that first hit receiver Josh Palmer’s hands.
The Bengals got the score as close as 24-22 heading into the fourth quarter, but Cincinnati running back Joe Mixon picked a bad time to lose a fumble for just the second time since 2018. After making a cut, he simply dropped the ball, and Chargers cornerback Tevaughn Campbell returned it 61 yards for a touchdown.
With Burrow hurting, Cincinnati never caught up.
The Chargers are still a tough read. Their 4-1 start gave way to a slide in which they lost four of their next six, behind a defense that has been bad against the run. Sunday’s win over a surging Bengals team should fill Los Angeles, and Staley, with confidence that its talented offense can go drive for drive with anyone.
Around the N.F.L.
Lions 29, Vikings 27: The Lions have discovered new, insufferable ways to lose every week. But not today. After fumbling away the lead with four minutes to go, quarterback Jared Goff redeemed himself by leading Detroit on a 14-play, 75-yard touchdown drive in just 1:50. His 11-yard touchdown pass to Amon-Ra St. Brown at the buzzer ended the season’s longest winless streak.
Buccaneers 30, Falcons 17: Tom Brady threw a brutal pick-6 against Atlanta at the end of the first half. But he once again bounced back from an egregious mistake to torment the Falcons, finishing with 368 passing yards and four touchdowns. Brady didn’t take a sack on 51 dropbacks.
Colts 31, Texans 0: Nothing like a date with the hapless Texans to get back on track. Jonathan Taylor continued to pad his M.V.P. résumé with 143 yards on 32 attempts and two touchdowns.
Dolphins 20, Giants 9: Miami continued to tear through a soft stretch of its schedule, and Tua Tagovailoa was efficient again, going 30 of 41 for 244 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions. The Dolphins have won five straight.
Eagles 33, Jets 18: Gardner Minshew and his handlebar mustache took over, in place of the injured Jalen Hurts, leading the Eagles to score on seven of their eight offensive possessions. Minshew found a quick rapport with tight end Dallas Goedert (102 yards, two touchdowns).
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