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Eliminating Negative Plays Continues to be Cardinals Most Pressing Task

The Arizona Cardinals need a clean performance in Los Angeles to advance in the playoffs.

The Arizona Cardinals offense allowed five sacks, seven tackles for loss and committed six penalties in last Sunday's NFC West crown-dooming loss to the Seattle Seahawks. 

Negative plays is a phrase used frequently by Arizona. It was last year, and its use has picked up in the second half of this season. 

No team has been flagged more than Arizona during the last three weeks of the regular season, most of which were on offense.

"We think we are a capable group; there's no doubt guys can make plays," head coach Kliff Kingsbury said this week. "This past week, way too many negative plays and got us off schedule. I think we were third-and-10 plus eight times (actually seven), which is really hard to overcome. We can't hurt ourselves."

The Cardinals reached the playoffs as the No. 5 seed and will take on the Los Angeles Rams on Monday Night Football. 

This will be Round 3 between these two NFC West foes. 

That last matchup kicked off Arizona's late-season skid as LA won 30-23. The Cardinals offense was flagged seven times, allowed three sacks and six tackles for loss that night. They also turned the ball over twice. 

“I thought we just had a couple negative plays, a couple negative plays offensively," quarterback Kyler Murray said after that game. "Other than that, I think we moved the ball well. I think we executed at a pretty high rate, just a lot of penalties, two turnovers, conversions on fourth down."

That game was a model of Arizona's second half of the year in several ways. 

The Cardinals looked dominant early, marching down to kick a field goal, getting a stop and then putting together another efficient drive. However, Murray was intercepted in the end zone to cap that second series after a tipped pass. 

The Rams scored a touchdown on the ensuing drive, forced a three-and-out and kicked a field goal after. 

Both teams will be searching for consistency these playoffs, as LA has certainly struggled to put together complete games. The Rams led San Francisco 17-0 in Week 18 and lost in overtime. 

Kingsbury said his team needs to stay on schedule offensively, moving the ball without going backwards. 

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In a Week 4 win over the Rams, the Cardinals moved with pace, Murray hit a lot of shorter throws and the run game was effective. Arizona had five drives of at least nine plays, all of which ended with points. 

“You really just want to try to stay on schedule, and if you can, keep those guys on the field as many plays as possible," Kingsbury said. 

"That’s really the only chance you have to try to slow down (Aaron Donald) and some of those pass rushers they have. Consistently making the routine plays, staying on schedule, extending drives is going to be a huge part of us trying to win the game.”

In Week 14, the Cardinals continued to move the ball, but the two turnovers directly led to Rams points. Plus, the Cardinals did not score following each giveaway, as it took a drive to get back on track. 

Wide receiver Christian Kirk told reporters that defenses will force the Cardinals to take a little at a time. Kingsbury pointed out that Seattle utilized shell coverage to eliminate explosive plays. 

This gives the Cardinals options for short yardage to keep the chains moving, but it also ups the risk of something going wrong. Early this season, that did not happen much but lately it has. 

"We definitely predicate ourselves on being able to take advantage of those deep shots and explosive plays, but sometimes defenses schematically want to take that away," Kirk said. "Make us go 10-12 plays down the field methodically and try to put it in the end zone, hoping that we shoot ourselves in the foot. We just have to adjust to that."

Finding consistency has been difficult when the team's personnel has been in flux offensively. 

Kirk is the only Cardinals offensive player who has been available all season. For Monday, questions loom regarding running back James Conner, left guard Justin Pugh and wide receiver Rondale Moore. DeAndre Hopkins won't play.

Running back Chase Edmonds will, and he was terrific in Week 4 running for 120 yards. He did not play in Week 14, and the Cardinals struggled to run on a down-to-down basis. 

Los Angeles is a team Arizona has proven it can drive on. The Rams have seen the fourth-most defensive plays and completions allowed in the league, albeit with the 25th-most yards per play. They give up short yardage. 

The Cardinals have looked capable of winning any game when playing clean football, and the players feel that way.

But they have to make it easy on themselves, not harder.