GLENDALE, Ariz. — Well, it’s over.
A thrilling 2013 campaign ended for the Arizona Cardinals Sunday with a hard-fought 23-20 loss to the San Francisco 49ers at University of Phoenix Stadium.
Fittingly, it was a game that followed a prevalent theme of the season — perseverance.
The Cardinals shot themselves in the foot early and often, digging themselves a 17-0 hole after one quarter of play.
But, as they’ve done all year, the Cardinals clawed their way back into the game. This time, behind a stout run defense and 407 yards and two touchdown passes from Carson Palmer.
San Francisco made plays down the stretch, including a 40-yard field goal from Phil Dawson as time expired to give them the victory and their second-straight season sweep of the Cardinals, who finished 10-6.
Here are six things that stood out to me from Sunday’s game (and the season)…
This run defense is special – The 49ers raced out to a 17-point lead and couldn’t run the football against the Cardinals. In fact, San Francisco accumulated only 40 yards on the ground in the last 45 minutes of the game.
Frank Gore had 11 carries for eight yards after the first quarter, and finished the game with just 14 yards — his lowest output of the season.
Over the last eight games of the season, the Cardinals’ defense allowed an average of 80.6 yards per game to their opponents. They allowed two opposing runners — Maurice Jones-Drew of Jacksonville and Zac Stacy of St. Louis — to reach the end zone.
Carson Palmer is one resilient S.O.B – It happened again Sunday.
Palmer threw an early, ugly interception. On the Cardinals’ second possession, Palmer almost inexplicably threw a ball intended for Michael Floyd, who had five San Francisco defenders near him. Linebacker NaVorro Bowman made the pick and returned it to the Cardinals’ 16-yard line. Five plays later, Colin Kaepernick hit Anquan Boldin on a 4-yard touchdown throw.
This came on the heels of throwing a near-interception on Arizona’s first drive, but 49ers safety Eric Reid just dropped it.
Admit it, you were thinking Palmer would throw four picks and the Cardinals would get blown out, right? I know that thought crossed my mind.
But, as he has done all season long, the veteran quarterback showed the almost uncanny ability to wipe his memory clean and just keep playing football. Palmer finished the day 28-of-49 for 407 yards and two touchdowns. He finished the season with a career-high 4,267 passing yards and became the first player in NFL history to record a 4,000-yard passing season with three different teams.
“He’s a resilient guy. I can’t say enough about how tough he is mentally,” head coach Bruce Arians said following the game. “Again today, he threw an interception that did lead to a touchdown, but he bounced right back.
“You know something good is going to happen sooner or later, because he’s going to keep sending it in there.”
Palmer did throw 22 interceptions this season, the second-most in the league. But more than half of them (12) came in games the Cardinals won, showing that the former Heisman Trophy winner has the innate ability to “shake it off.”
While Palmer’s season was certainly not Pro Bowl-caliber, one can make a solid argument that he was the team’s offensive MVP this season.
Feely, Nothing more than Feely… – Talk about your roller coaster rides — that’s what Jay Feely’s season was. The veteran kicker’s season featured quick accelerations, sharp dips and even some vomiting.
Feely was in Arians’ doghouse early, after missing a 30-yard field goal in a preseason game against the Dallas Cowboys, and every time he found his way out of it, something pulled him back in.
Sunday’s performance didn’t help Feely’s chances to be re-signed in the offseason. He missed a 37-yard field goal in the first quarter and a 43-yarder in the fourth quarter.
When asked what he said to his kicker following the game, Arians was brief.
“Nothing,” he said.
For as good as Feely has been in his four-year stint with the Cardinals — he’s hit 98 of 115 field goal attempts — I’d be willing to bet we’ve seen his last kick for the Cardinals.
Anquan Boldin is still incredible – Making the loss a little more painful for Cardinals fans was the fact that one of their favorite sons was inflicting heaping helpings of damage on the home team.
Boldin, who starred for the Cards from 2003 to 2009, made his first trip to UOP Stadium as a visitor, and let’s just say he was a rude guest. Boldin had nine catches for 149 yards and a touchdown. His 63-yard reception set up the 49ers’ second touchdown.
But he wouldn’t have another catch until the fourth quarter, but we saw vintage #81 on San Francisco’s last two field goal drives, including a huge 18-yard catch on first down, just two plays before Dawson’s game-winner.
He finished the season with 85 catches for 1,179 yards and seven touchdowns — not bad for a 33-year-old guy who has been traded and cut in the last four years.
Will the real Rob Housler please stand up? – If there has been a more frustrating player on the Cardinals’ offense this season than third-year tight end Rob Housler, I’d like to know who it was.
After being effectively benched last week in Seattle after a drop and taking what appeared to be an easy touchdown pass off the face, Housler struggled again early Sunday. He had another drop on a pass that should have been a touchdown and ran what appeared to be the wrong route on a deep pass from Palmer.
But unlike the Seattle game, Housler forged on to make a few positive plays, including a nice 24-yard reception on the drive that led to Feely’s game-tying field goal.
Housler finished the game with five catches for 78 yards, and had a career-high 454 yards this season. But most would agree, he has not been the downfield threat he was advertised as when he was drafted out of Florida Atlantic three years ago.
Just the beginning – The Cardinals’ locker room had a strange feel to it after Sunday’s game.
Optimism and sadness were palpable in equal measure. Yes, the Cardinals knew that whatever happened in Glendale was meaningless, as the New Orleans Saints were well on their way to clinching the sixth and final NFL playoff berth by bludgeoning the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. But they didn’t care. They just wanted a win over the 49ers to send them into the offseason as one of just three teams in league history to win 11 games and not make the playoffs. That didn’t happen — thus, the sadness.
But under all that was a thick layer of optimism. A new GM and coaching staff came in and completely rebuilt a team that just one year ago, was reeling from a 5-11 season. Now they’ll watch the postseason from home, with an eye to the future.
Defensive tackle Darnell Dockett may have summed it up best.
“Like Bruce Arians says, this is the beginning, this is the first year,” he said. “We were 10-6 and missed the playoffs by a game. We will regroup and we will continue to work. We will be one dangerous team next year.”
It’s been a while since I’ve said this, but I personally can’t wait until September to see what’s in the next chapter of this book.