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Cardinals stayed in playoff hunt and that’s all that matters

Cardinals running back David Johnson rushes against the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday, Nov. 13, 2016. (AP)

GLENDALE, Ariz. — We noted last week that a mediocre NFC had created opportunity for the Cardinals despite a disappointing 3-4-1 first half. That was doubly true after the Falcons, Vikings, Packers, Saints and Panthers all lost in Sunday’s early games.

The Cardinals were fortunate to have one of the two NFC teams that are out of the conference playoff race in town for a Sunday matinee at University of Phoenix Stadium. The San Francisco 49ers are the NFC’s worst team and the Cardinals needed every bit of that ineptitude to escape with a 23-20 win on Chandler Catanzaro’s last-second field goal before a less-than-packed house.

With the victory, Arizona improved to 4-4-1 and jumped from the No. 13 seed in the conference to No. 9, just a game behind the Washington Redskins (5-3-1) for the final wild card spot. The New York Giants (5-3), who lead the NFC Wild Card race, host Cincinnati on Monday Night Football.

Things are so crazy in this conference right now that the Detroit Lions are in first place in the NFC North.

Sunday’s game was never going to prove anything definitive about the Cardinals’ mental and physical fitness coming off their bye week. The 49ers are awful so a loss would have been the only truly noteworthy outcome of this game. The Cardinals could have gained a lot more confidence with a big win, but they accomplished the most vital goal in Sunday’s game and that was winning.

“It’s over if you don’t win at home. It really is,” coach Bruce Arians said. “Now it’s where it needs to be.”

With the 49ers stacking the box to stop running back David Johnson, Arians focused on mending his passing game with mixed results. Carson Palmer completed 30 of 49 passes for 376 yards and a TD. The Cardinals also got some of the chunk plays that have been missing all season, but Palmer tossed a critical interception late in the fourth quarter that allowed the 49ers to tie the game with 1:55 remaining, and the Cardinals missed chances to put the 49ers away because they committed four turnovers.

Larry Fitzgerald had 12 catches for 133 yards and the Cards welcomed Michael Floyd back to the offense with five receptions for 101 yards, including a huge, leaping grab that extended the Cardinals’ game-winning drive to the sacrifice of Floyd’s body.

“It feels good,” Floyd said. “Obviously, in the first half of the season I didn’t make the plays that I’m capable of making but this team is close and they had all the confidence in me.”

The defense looked mostly solid and the beleaguered special teams actually came through when Catanzaro connected on a 34-yard field goal as time expired after missing game-winning attempts against New England and Seattle.

“I’m really happy that last one went through for these guys because they deserved it,” Catanzaro said. “My kick was just the punctuation mark at the end of the sentence.”

The Cardinals should have a bit more swagger next week when they travel to face the reeling and injury-ravaged Minnesota Vikings, who have lost four straight games to fall from the top perch in the NFC to non-playoff grouping of eight teams between the records of 5-4 and 4-5.

The NFC looks so bland right now that the Cardinals may even be able to afford a split of their next two roads games at Minnesota and Atlanta. If they win them both, they might find themselves in the driver’s seat in this conference with even a division title within reach, although Seattle won a big game at New England on Sunday night to maintain a two-game lead. The Cardinals face the Seahawks in Seattle on Christmas Eve in the second-to-last game of the regular season.

“Resiliency is the big thing,” Arians said, “but there’s a lot of good things to take from this ballgame.”

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