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Saturday January 22nd, 2022 12:31AM

After 3 years of building, Cards' Murray ready for playoffs

By The Associated Press
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Kyler Murray has kept a low-key demeanor throughout his football career, staying with a “never too high, never too low” philosophy that's allowed him to thrive from the high school level all the way through the NFL.

But the Arizona Cardinals quarterback admits this week is a little different.

“As a competitor, this is as big as it gets,” Murray said. “It's the playoffs. This is what you dream of, this is what you live for, this is what you play for, the opportunity to go and win a Super Bowl.

“There's no shying away from it.”

The Cardinals selected Murray with the No. 1 overall pick out of Oklahoma back in 2019 with the hope that it would provide these pressure-packed playoff weeks. The 24-year-old has delivered in the regular season, proving a quick study by turning in three stellar regular seasons.

Now — for the first time in his career — the NFL postseason awaits. The Cardinals (11-6) visit the Los Angeles Rams (12-5) on Monday night in the wild-card round.

“I eat, breath and sleep football,” Murray said. “To be in this situation, I'm just excited about it. There's no fear, there's no nerves about playing at a high level, you've just got to go out there and execute the plays and be yourself. I cherish the moment and I'm excited for it.”

The moment is a big one, not just for Murray, but also for third-year coach Kliff Kingsbury. The two were brought to Arizona as something of a package deal in 2019. Kingsbury's specialty is developing quarterbacks and the relationship between the two has been central to the team's rise from a 5-10-1 record in 2019, to 8-8 in 2020, to this year's 11-win campaign.

Kingsbury's got lots of things to worry about when preparing for the Rams. There's the strong arm of Matthew Stafford and route-running of Cooper Kupp. There's a defense that includes stars like Jalen Ramsey and Aaron Donald.

But Murray's ability to perform under pressure isn't among them.

“I think this is what he’s been waiting for for three years," Kingsbury said. "He’s a guy who wants to be playing for something and knows he’s playing for something. This is his first shot at the playoffs, and I expect him to probably play the best game of his career. I know he’s going to give it everything he’s got.”

The biggest concern for the Cardinals is shaking a late-season funk that blunted the team's momentum heading into the postseason. Arizona started the year with a 7-0 record but faded with a 4-6 mark over the final 10 games, including 1-4 in the past five.

Murray's season has mirrored the team's record. He was awesome in September and October — emerging as one of the league's MVP candidates — before a slow decline in production. A three-game absence because of an ankle injury didn't help. Neither did losing three-time All-Pro receiver DeAndre Hopkins to a knee injury.

Now the Cardinals are trying to figure out a way to recapture that early season mojo. Arizona played arguably its best game of the season in a Week 4 win against the Rams, dominating from start to finish in the 37-20 victory.

But the Rams bounced back in Week 14 to beat the Cardinals 30-23 on Monday Night Football.

Round 3 is approaching in a hurry.

“I think everybody is continuing to evolve and figure out how you can get better," Kingsbury said. "Whether it’s offensively, defensively, or special teams, you’re always looking for new things around the league – different plays people run, different schemes people run. I think there’s always ways to be innovative when you get to this point.”

But innovation only goes so far. At some point on Monday, Murray's probably going to have to execute better and simply make a play when it matters most.

Judging from the rest of his career, he'll be ready.

“You have to play well in these games or you're not going to be looked at as ‘That Guy,'" Murray said. “I understand the responsibility I have to this team to go out and play well.”

___

More AP NFL coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/NFL and https://twitter.com/AP_NFL

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