A new dance begins on Sunday. The Cardinals and Rams are playing for first place in the NFC West. Kyler Murray is battling Matthew Stafford for frontrunner in the MVP race. The field will be decorated with four NFC players of the week and the reigning offensive player of the month.
It could also mark a fundamental shift in Valley fandom, the moment when the Rams replace the Seahawks as our most heated divisional rivalry.
In the past four years, there has been very little competition between these teams, only hammer and nail. Rams head coach Sean McVay is 8-0 against the Cardinals, spanning three different eras and two different continents. Most games have been blowouts. One effectively ended Carson Palmer’s career and Bruce Arians’ reign in Arizona.
A victory would secure a big chunk of credibility and terra firma for Kliff Kingsbury. It would be a powerful statement to beat McVay in a clash of unbeaten teams, with A-list celebrities suddenly gathering inside a $5 billion stadium, just as McVay was armed with the quarterback of his dreams.
Remember, McVay has changed everything in the NFC West. Eight days after the Rams traded for Stafford, 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan decided he needed a quarterback of his own, trading off a gaggle of assets for a draft pick that became Trey Lance. And after being fired by his alma mater at Texas Tech, Kingsbury somehow spiraled upwards, into a bidding war for his services.
Why? Because every struggling NFL franchise wanted their own version of McVay.
Kingsbury has yet to approach that standard entering Sunday’s game while McVay has spent the past four seasons thrashing the Cardinals with Jared Goff at quarterback, which only exacerbates how badly he has outcoached his Arizona counterparts.
Kingsbury must unveil his best game plan to date. His play calling must be shrewd and sharp, creating a rhythm, a pocket and a comfort zone for Murray. He cannot afford the skittish, frustrated version of Murray, and it’s very easy to feel threatened when sharing a field with the destructive Aaron Donald, one of the most impactful players in NFL history.
This is not a time for trick bags, gimmicks or brain-freeze bubble screens. They need Kingsbury to aggressively attack the Rams downfield while getting the ball out of Murray’s hand as fast as possible. They need newly acquired Rodney Hudson to show why he’s the best center in the league, keeping his diminutive quarterback out of harm’s way.
The Cardinals must rediscover their own missing pass rush. They need Chandler Jones and J.J. Watt to dominate the line of scrimmage just like they did in Tennessee. That’s the only way to protect their inexperienced secondary against Stafford, the first elite quarterback they will face in 2021.
How good? Former Lions receiving great Calvin Johnson recently said that “(Stafford) has an arm unlike anyone else.” Kingsbury must prove he belongs on the same field as McVay, especially when both have great firepower at quarterback.
In recent years, Seattle has always been our most loathed rival. There were memorable showdowns with the Seahawks on national television; annual epic victories from the road team; and dueling fan bases that truly detest one another.
But the landscape is changing. Russell Wilson and the Seahawks might be going stale, destined for last place and inevitable divorce. For all their brawny arrogance, the 49ers are just another good team without a great quarterback, partly why Shanahan’s career coaching record is 31-36.
This game could spawn the dawn of a repackaged rivalry in the NFC West. And why not? One team replaced the other in St. Louis. Both stake claim to Kurt Warner. Both feature high-flying offenses and transcendent, must-watch quarterbacks. Besides, it’s Phoenix vs. L.A., always good for a blood feud.