How the Cardinals went from the NFL’s best record to a team in free fall

The Cardinals are 3-4 over their last seven games after opening the season with a 7-0 record, transforming, on a dime, from the league’s only two-way juggernaut into a bundle of parts masquerading as a team.

On Sunday, against the Lions in Detroit, you could almost feel the shudders of concern seeping through the screen. All those early-era Kliff Kingsbury concerns were back in full force: The dodgy clock management, the lack of faith in an (admittedly rough) offensive line clouding the offensive play-calling, the boom-or-bust defensive doctrine striking out more than it hit – again.

Related: NFL roundup: Lowly Lions roar to huge upset of high-flying Arizona Cardinals

Kingsbury’s team had the look of a side coming unstuck at the wrong moment. Their final three opponents: The Colts, Cowboys, and Broncos. Drop one – or two – and there’s a good chance the Cardinals wind up in a wild-card spot, and this after opening the year as the league’s last undefeated team.

“I thought they played better, coached better, and had a better sense of urgency from the start,” Kingsbury said of the Lions post-game.

The Cardinals didn’t just lose. They were beaten up. Offense, defense, special teams, it didn’t matter. And while the result could be held up as yet another example of football as a whole – and this season in particular – being weird, that would do a disservice to the Lions, and cover up some of the long-term concerns about the Cardinals.

Don’t look now, but the Fighting Dan Campbell’s have been simmering for some time. As 2-11-1 teams go, the Lions are as good as it gets. They play with a frenzied energy. They’re smart, stay within themselves, and play hard. That last part can often be shuffled into the category of vapid coach-ism. But with the Lions, it’s visceral. Every game, every possession, Detroit makes you earn it. Campbell, Ted Lasso in Hulk Hogan’s body, has built a team that’s smart, fights like crazy, and is coached by a staff…

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