The Cardinals clinched the NFC West in their dominant performance over the stuttering Eagles on a night that belonged to rookie David Johnson.
As an running back at Clinton High in Clinton, Iowa, David Johnson was under-recruited—coaches from the big Iowa school felt that he wasn't well-rounded enough—so he took his talents to Northern Iowa instead. There, he became one of the most notable players in the Missouri Valley Football Conference, but was still underrated coming into the 2015 draft, even after he torched the Hawkeyes for 203 receiving yards and 34 rushing yards in his senior season. The Cardinals took him with the 86th overall pick in the 2015 draft, and he was expected to make a minimal impact, perhaps as a hybrid H-back and third-down rusher.
That was the popular narrative, anyway. What Johnson did against the Eagles on Sunday Night Football was fairly remarkable. He rushed 29 times for 187 yards and three touchdowns in Arizona's 40-17 win, adding four receptions for 42 yards. With his status as the team's starter cemented by injuries up the depth chart, his 11 touchdowns from scrimmage are the most for any Cardinals rookie, while his total rushing output is the most impressive for any Cardinals back since Willis Crenshaw put up 162 rushing yards and scored three touchdowns against the Giants...on Dec. 8, 1968.
Johnson's performance allowed the Cardinals to amass a bunch of franchise cornerstones. 2015 marks the first time in the team's history, which goes back to 1920 as the Chicago Cardinals, that they've won 12 games in a regular season. It's the first time the Cards have seven road wins in a season, it's the first eight-game winning streak since 1948, and it's the first time the franchise has gone four straight games without a turnover.
The Cards are on a serious roll, but this was Johnson's night.
“This is a grown man, the way he ran the ball today,” quarterback Carson Palmer said. “Couldn't be prouder of the way he ran, broke tackles, always fell forward, and the way the offensive line played was spectacular.” And the most spectacular of those plays came with 4:00 left in the first half, when Johnson bounced outside and put everyone in green uniforms on skates in a 47-yard touchdown run.
“Just an outside zone,” Johnson said of that big run. “I had good blocking, where I was able to cut back, broke a couple of tackles, god a couple of stiff-arms, and I got in.” As for his complete game, and what he's able to bring to his NFL team after all those previous slights, Johnson remained humble.
“I think it's just continuing to learn. I'm always talking to Carson, always talking to [running backs coach] Stump [Mitchell], always talking to [fellow Cardinals running back] Andre [Ellington], trying to get better every day, and getting ready to help our team. It feels great—it's amazing. Hopefully, it continues, this success. Get ready for Green Bay, and hopefully we can come back.”
The newly crowned NFC West champs will hope to come back with two of their most crucial players at full strength: Palmer injured the index finger on his throwing hand, but got it taped up and re-entered the game in a performance that saw him complete 20 of 32 passes for 274 yards and a touchdown. Palmer's numbers would have been loftier were it not for three drops from receiver John Brown, who came into this game with one drop on 75 targets. The Cards will also hope that cornerback Tyrann Mathieu, who suffered a lower leg injury late in the game, but was able to walk to the locker room, will be okay—Mathieu has played at a Defensive Player of the Year pace, and losing him for any length of time through the postseason would be a major hit.
Speaking of major hits, there's what happened to the Eagles on this night. While the Cardinals were celebrating the exploits of their third-round running back, who will make a base salary of $435,000 this season, the Eagles put their prime running back DeMarco Murray, who signed a contract this offseason that guaranteed him $21 million, on the bench for the most part. Despite his alleged greatness as a short-yardage back, and despite the Eagles finding themselves in several key short-yardage situations, Murray didn't enter the game until halfway through the third quarter, and finished his day with two carries for three yards. When the Eagles sent Ryan Mathews on a failed fourth-and-one conversion from the Arizona eight-yard line with 50 seconds left in the first half, the look on Murray's face from the sideline said it all.
It's one of many hits to the first-year personnel acumen of head coach Chip Kelly, who also presides over a defense who blew several coverages and tackled Johnson at a level that most high-school defensive coaches would find unacceptable. Sam Bradford completed 28 of 41 passes for 361 yards and two touchdowns, but his two interceptions hurt—as did the fumbles that gave the ball back to Arizona on two straight drives in the third quarter. Bradford fumbled on a strip-sack from Cards linebacker Markus Golden, who leads all rookies in total pressures, and Mathews gave up the ball on the next drive on a tackle by end Josh Mauro. Mauro is a second-year player, and the more you look at the Cardinals' team, the more you see a roster put together expertly by general manager Steve Keim and his scouting staff. Arizona has a team perfectly suited to the preferences of head coach Bruce Arians, and that's become more and more clear in each game.
Meanwhile, the Eagles team hastily re-assembled by Kelly in his own image doesn't seem to know who or what it is these days. Philly can still win the lukewarm NFC East with a couple of wins to end the season, but this game showed the difference—quite clearly—between those who back into the postseason, and those who define the journey.