A common theme from both locker rooms following the Arizona Cardinals improbable 32-30 victory over the Buffalo Bills Sunday was a general consensus that it should not have come down to one play. From both perspectives, they each felt there were opportunities to win well before Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray connected with wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins for a 43-yard game-winning Hail Mary.
They are not wrong, either. Stalled offensive possessions and failure to capitalize on turnovers created the circumstances that played out the way they did. After all, neither team scored any points in the fourth quarter until there were 34 seconds left when Bills quarterback Josh Allen hit wide receiver Stefon Diggs for a 21-yard touchdown to take a 30-26 lead that many believed they would not surrender.
"Felt like it was some back and forth," Cardinals head coach Kliff Kingsbury said postgame. "Both teams kind of sputtering at times, not putting it in the end zone and then it went crazy at the end. And it's just nice to come out on top in a game that goes that way."
The game followed the narrative that was created in its lead-up, with a staunch wide receiver battle taking place between Diggs, the NFL's leader in receiving yards and Hopkins, who Diggs replaced in that spot. Of course, the final two scoring plays epitomized their respective talents, with Hopkins' scoring catch proving more worthwhile, even when Diggs believed he had the game won for the Bills.
For their efforts, Diggs was second on the Bills with 10 catches on 11 targets for 93 yards and one touchdown, while Hopkins posted a team-high seven catches on 12 targets for 127 yards and a score.
“Of course I could have done better," Bills head coach Sean McDermott said of scheming Hopkins defensively. "As a coach, you’re always thinking about what you could have done differently. That’s the very first thing I said, ‘What could we have done differently?’ We got great guys in this locker room and they’re saying the same thing: Knock the ball down. We can’t be interception-minded in that situation. Knock the ball down. At the end of the day, give them the credit. They made a special play.”
Murray said the Hail Mary completion was the first of its type of his career and Hopkins said it was the "No. 1" catch he has ever hauled in, simply because "it won the game." With it, the Cardinals advanced to 6-3 and eclipsed their win total from 2019, when they went 5-10-1.
"It has to be the biggest [catch] of his career, maybe?" Kingsbury said. "I don't know. He's phenomenal. I went out of that game last week regretting we didn't try to get it to him in crunch time more. We had a good talk this week and I've never been a part of one of those, so still kind of at a loss for words. But what a phenomenal play."
For as memorable as the catch is, it would not have been made possible without the heroics of Murray, who had an air distance of 57.1 yards and an overall speed of 11.66 mph at the time of the throw, per Next Gen Stats. All of this taking into account him rolling to the weak side and launching it off his back foot with three defenders closing in.
"The play was designed for me to get out left," Murray said. "They had a guy containing, had to make him miss. And then, as funny as it sounds, I felt like — the only person I saw down there was Hop. Let it go, give him a chance and it's funny, everybody, all they saw was black gloves rising from everybody. It was a group of four people and all they saw was black gloves, so I'm just glad he caught the ball."
Added Kingsbury: "Just to get the pass off was incredible. If you watch the replay, he's running and dodging and ducking and I didn't think he'd get it off. And then to put that type of loft on it and give him a chance — my vantage point, I couldn't see much. But I saw the crowd go crazy and just kept asking our guys, 'Did he catch it?' And they were going nuts up top."
From the Bills' perspective, everything that could have gone wrong on the sequences following Diggs' scoring reception did. The end result is their third loss of the season.
“When I looked over we had three guys, I haven’t seen the video yet but we had three guys there," McDermott said. "No. 1, you don’t want the QB to be able to extend the play like that, stating the obvious. I thought we had [Murray] on the run there for a little bit there and we had him toward the sideline. It looked like we had a rusher fall down and then another guy coming as he unloaded it. You always think about what we could have done differently. That’s the first thing I do.
“At the end of the day they made a play. As coaches you sit here and immediately go to ‘What could we have done differently?’ At the end of the day they had two special players that made a special play . . . This is the NFL. The game is not over until it’s over, there’s another reminder of it in this game right here especially when you know what type of players they got on their side with Kyler Murray and DeAndre Hopkins and (wide receiver) Larry Fitzgerald. They got long, big receivers and he made a play.”
How difficult is it to process leading your team on a potentially game-winning drive to helplessly watching a successful Hail Mary unfold before your eyes?
“Losing is never fun," Allen said. "To lose like that is painful. It hurts. That’s why you play 60 minutes of the game . . . I have an extreme amount of confidence in our defense to close the game out. Unfortunately, it comes down to one play. It’s the game of football. It happens. If I do my job better throughout the game, it doesn’t come down to that one play.”
Even Murray was skeptical of the team's chances to pull it out, considering he had never done so with any team in his football history. With the momentum swung and time dwindling, winning was nearly unconceivable. Yet, with Hopkins split out wide, anything is possible.
"I've never played receiver," Murray said, "so I don't even — I'm thinking like, 'Yo, he's got to run down there. That's a 50-yard trot down there. And then he's got to post up with three dudes that are NFL athletes.' I don't know. That's a tough catch.
"I knew when it left my hand it had a chance just because you play quarterback, you can tell the trajectory, the touch of the ball. But I think I was looking at the sideline, I just got the reaction from everybody. I don't think I saw him catch the ball. I really don't remember, it happened so fast, but I knew once it left my hand it had a good chance."
Added McDermott: “It’s a delicate balance, and I would just say you always look back and say, ‘Hey we just needed to make one more play.’ If you’re defending a field goal maybe a little bit different of a mindset there. If you’re defending a touchdown, the ball is thrown from right around midfield into the end zone, usually you like your chances and they made the play, so give them the credit.”
With a rematch against Seattle on tap Thursday in what will be a short week, the Cardinals will take "the next 12 hours," as Kingsbury said in the locker room, to celebrate before putting the win behind them. If Sunday's result is any sign of the trajectory of the organization, the Cardinals should be optimistic about the rest of this season and beyond as Murray and Hopkins continue to develop their bond.
"I think it just shows the harder you work, the more you put into it, the more good breaks you catch," Kingsbury said. "And our guys are starting to believe that. Since I got here last year, they've played hard each and every week, they play to win and eventually things are going to start turning your way if you do that. And I'm hoping this was the start of some good luck and a good run."