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With win over 49ers, Cardinals gave themselves ‘a fighting chance’

Arizona Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald walks off the field after the Cardinals defeated the San Francisco 49ers 33-21 in an NFL football game in Santa Clara, Calif., Thursday, Oct. 6, 2016. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

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SANTA CLARA, Calif. — The Cardinals entered Thursday night’s game against the San Francisco 49ers in a spot no one expected them to be in.

Tied for last place in the NFC West at 1-3, they were in danger of seeing a season that had Super Bowl aspirations and expectations all but end in early October with a loss. While 1-4 would not have mathematically eliminated them from postseason contention, it would have put them in a considerable hole.

The shovels can be put away, at least for one more week.

The Cardinals started off slowly but ultimately pulled away from the 49ers for a 33-21 win. It wasn’t necessarily the prettiest of victories, but it was a victory. For a team that had lost its last two, it could not have come soon enough.

“It’s good to get back on the winning track,” receiver Larry Fitzgerald said. “Getting to 2-3 is a lot better than being 1-4.

“I think on all three sides of the ball, special teams, offense and defensively we made plays today, and we fed off each other. That’s what it’s going to take for us to get wins.”

This win, in particular, had the Cardinals, for perhaps the first time in a while, with their backs somewhat against the wall. They were without starting QB Carson Palmer, who stayed in Arizona while he recovers from a concussion, and also had to go without running back Chris Johnson and safety Tyvon Branch, both of whom were placed on injured reserve earlier in the week.

The saving grace for the team having to play in this situation on a short week may have been that their opponent, the 49ers, were dealing with their own injuries and, really, are not as talented a team as the Cardinals.

But in losses to the Patriots, Bills and Rams, one could argue being the more talented team did not do a whole lot for the Cardinals. Thursday night, with big plays on special teams, defense and offense, they finally did what they were supposed to do.

Cardinals coach Bruce Arians said the win “was what we needed,” and it is difficult to argue. He lamented his team’s third-down offense (5-for-16) and said Stanton was playing a little too fast at times. The biggest issue he had was the team’s failure to score a point in the first quarter for the fifth time in five games.

“So you can write about that — you’ve got something to write about,” he told the media. “Other than that, I’m pretty damn happy.”

The truth is, there is no such thing as a bad win in the NFL, especially for a team whose season was teetering on the edge.

Given that, conventional wisdom would say the Cardinals played well Thursday in part out of desperation, perhaps not just to get a win but save their season. Arians, though, wasn’t a fan of the word.

“I think we’re a hungry team,” he said. “A team that knows that we dug a hole for ourselves and we had to win this game.

“If that’s desperate, it’s desperate.”

It’s semantics, really, though there was not much disagreement in the locker room.

Left tackle Jared Veldheer said his coach was spot on with his assessment but did note there was “a ton of urgency” to earn a victory Thursday night. Center A.Q. Shipley, overhearing the line of questioning, interjected and said that yes, this was a must-win game.

“We wanted to win,” Veldheer added. “We wanted to get that win going, and we were able to get a win tonight and be able to search for another win next week. But it meant a lot.”

Added safety Tyrann Mathieu: “We weren’t desperate. We’ve got a lot of talent. A lot of times the execution part of it doesn’t match up to our potential. But I wouldn’t say ‘desperate’. We were definitely hungry for a win.”

Mathieu cited the expectations the team has for itself as part of the driving force, and to a man, the Cardinals strongly believe they are more talented than their early-season record would indicate. That’s why, according to defensive lineman Calais Campbell, saying they were desperate isn’t an insult or even necessarily off-base.

“Given our situation and how good we can be, you have to be desperate in this situation,” he said. “It’s not OK to be 1-3, and now we’re 2-3 and there’s a lot of football to be played. It’s a better situation.

“But we still have a long way to go. Got to just keep stacking them because this next game is crucial; at home, another primetime game. It’s going to be huge for us. We’ve got to find a way to get it done.”

Arizona’s next game is Monday, Oct. 17, at home against the New York Jets. A win would even up the Cardinals’ record at 3-3 and give them some positive momentum heading into a stretch of games. A loss, however, would essentially put them back in the position they were in leading into the game against the 49ers.

That’s a conversation for next week. For now, the Cardinals get to enjoy a win. Whether it will be remembered as the one that turned their season around has yet to be determined.

“There’s only 16 games in the regular season,” Fitzgerald said. “I mean, you know after four games you’ve got 12, and the wins start becoming much more important every single week.

“We understood getting that getting into a 1-4 deficit this early in the season, that’s really tough to climb out of that hole. You know, 2-3 is tough to get out of, but it gives you a fighting chance.”

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