Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray has said Arizona had not been far off its course in recent weeks despite three straight losses. But lost opportunities and negative plays have been holding them back.
While Sunday's game against the Cowboys was not free of those for Arizona, and Murray explicitly said that postgame, the Cardinals made enough happen in all three phases to win 25-22.
"It was still sloppy at times, but I mean, that was a playoff football game, it's not going to be perfect," Murray said. "I think there's some stuff out there that we still need to clean up, some throws I feel like I should have made. But we played turnover-free, we got the ball back on defense, we played good complementary football. So I think that was part of the process of getting back on track."
Arizona did not turn the ball over on offense and finished six of nine possessions with points before its final series.
Murray said he wanted to see more touchdowns and fewer field goals, but Arizona was consistently able to move the ball against what was the No. 7 scoring defense in the league. They gained 399 net yards and had terrific balance with 32 rushes for 127 yards.
Murray completed 26 of 38 throws for 263 yards and two touchdowns including this tremendous toss to wide receiver Antoine Wesley:
And this throw on the run on fourth down:
He also took off six times for 47 yards (not counting three kneeldowns to end the game), including the game-sealing first-down run when Dallas was out of timeouts in the final two minutes.
One of the Cardinals' major tests in this game was their ability to close it out.
They got the ball back with 4:42 left and up by three.
Murray ran for two first downs and connected with tight end Zach Ertz for another on the drive.
"He checked a couple of those option plays on his own," head coach Kliff Kingsbury said. He pulled the zone read, we had the quarterback draw early. And we knew we had kept the defense on the field too long. We knew we needed to put that one away."
Murray added, "That's what winning teams do. When you want to be one of those guys, the quarterback that when you got the ball, the game is over. That was that moment for me and the offense to put it away."
Running back Chase Edmonds also ran for a first down.
This game looked like a lofty challenge on the other side of the ball for Arizona, as it was missing starters in the secondary and front seven.
Defensive coordinator Vance Joseph's unit disguised many of its rushes well and relied on his safeties to be everywhere in more Cover 2 calls.
On run downs, the Cardinals loaded up front and had the safeties high in case of a pass. They would crash in once the ball was handed off.
On passing downs, Joseph devised many false pressures to help in coverage, and Dallas struggled in dealing with not knowing who was coming from where.
This plan mostly worked, but for it to, the Cardinals' top playmakers needed to show up.
"We're still a work in progress, but we got better this week and moving forward playing clean football is key," Joseph said. "Right now, everyone's in it. Everyone's playing their best ball."
Edge rusher Chandler Jones was a constant menace, starting on the first drive.
He had a tackle for loss and drew a holding call, plays that led to an eventual missed field goal instead of six points. He finished with two tackles for loss, a quarterback hit and assuredly several pressures.
Safety Budda Baker was key in this game, especially with a beat-up secondary. He finished with a sack, a couple of pass deflections and what would have been an interception had there not been a pass interference call against cornerback Antonio Hamilton.
"Each and every week we understand the offense, the way that they block," Baker said. "So, pre-snap, I already know who's going to block me and I already know if I can get past him it could possibly be a sack. VJ called my number; it's time to do my job."
The defense overall was not perfect, like the offense. The Cardinals allowed a scoring drive near the end of the first half that had three penalties against them.
Dallas' final offensive drive was a 75-yarder that included some coverage issues.
But, again, when the Cardinals needed a big play when leading by a possession in the fourth quarter, they got one.
Quarterback Dak Prescott dropped back while down eight with 10:42 remaining. Linebacker Isaiah Simmons bulldozed running back Ezekiel Elliott to force Prescott out of the pocket. Simmons then turned around and chased down Prescott, punching the ball out, and linebacker Dennis Gardeck recovered.
That was not the dagger in this game, but a major moment to keep Dallas at arm's length.
In what was a tight game by the end, the Cardinals could not afford missing kicks like they did last week.
With punter Andy Lee back from the COVID list and able to hold the ball, kicker Matt Prater had a perfect day. He hit four field goals and an extra point.
"They work really well together, spend a lot of time together and it was smooth," Kingsbury said. "Matt made some big-time kicks."
This was a big game for the Cardinals for many reasons.
The win keeps them alive in the division race, but there was more to it than that. They went back on the road against an opponent they'll very possibly see in the playoffs and stepped up in big moments.
There's plenty to clean up as this was not the most dominant game of their season or anything close to that. But it was a step forward after weeks of stumbling back with those negative plays.
"The last couple weeks had been bad in those areas, coaches and players," Kingsbury said. "We knew we had to step up and if we play clean and protect it, we were gonna have a shot against anybody."
Kingsbury said to his team in the locker room that this win is about getting hot going into the playoffs. They have one more game to keep that up.