Without playoffs as an end goal, Cardinals’ defense shuts out Giants

Dec 24, 2017, 8:07 PM | Updated: 11:41 pm

Arizona Cardinals cornerback Patrick Peterson (21) warms up prior to an NFL football game against t...

Arizona Cardinals cornerback Patrick Peterson (21) warms up prior to an NFL football game against the New York Giants, Sunday, Dec. 24, 2017, in Glendale, Ariz. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

(AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

GLENDALE, Ariz. — At their defense’s most vulnerable moment Sunday, this is where the Arizona Cardinals found themselves: Holding a 23-0 lead with 13:27 left in the game, Arizona quarterback Drew Stanton’s pass had bounced off J.J. Nelson’s hands.

It was reeled in by Giants defensive back Ross Cockrell, and the Cardinals probably could have survived without stopping the New York Giants, who began their drive on Arizona’s 29-yard line.

Still, what happened next said it all.

The Giants could only go backward 10 yards in five plays, turning the ball over on downs. By the end of the game, the Cardinals had earned a 23-0 win at University of Phoenix Stadium for the home team’s first franchise shutout since a 1992 game against the same opponent.

“Our guys didn’t run from anything,” said defensive coordinator James Bettcher. “I have said it before, it’s character.

“These guys, the last two drives that they had, when they are in our territory to kick a field goal and the guys keep playing and playing and playing … it is pretty special.”

It was a microcosm of the end of the year during this season that, at best, can end with a 8-8 record after a victory in Seattle.

Forget that New York fell to 2-13 on the season. A shutout is a shutout, and the Cardinals got contributions on the defensive side of the ball from players young and old.

Safety Antoine Bethea recorded his first multi-pick game of his 12-year career and had a third interception opportunity slip through his fingers. Rookie Budda Baker recorded 10 tackles and made five run stops from his safety spot. Deone Bucannon looked like a Pro Bowler, head coach Bruce Arians said, and forced a strip on Giants quarterback Eli Manning.

Second-year defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche scooped up the ball and rumbled for a 21-yard touchdown before being mobbed in in the corner of the stadium by his teammates.

“It felt like a breakthrough,” said Nkemdiche, the Cardinals’ 2016 first-round pick. “I appreciate that I have dudes like (Corey Peters) I can actually look up to and keep growing with. It’s only the beginning.

“We’re a brotherhood and a defense. We all know the work that we put in since training camp all the way to this point. That brings you together and gives you a cohesiveness.”

Bettcher’s confidence didn’t waver when the defense wasn’t playing to expectation midway through the season.

Still, he’s found it telling that his team has only improved since the Cardinals’ playoff hopes burned out a week ago.

“I think it is just there are moments or some plays that we had a chance to make early in the season, we’re making those plays now, ” Bettcher added. “There are turnovers that are there and balls that are loose on the ground that are fumbles and we are a yard away from. We are making those plays right now and that is a big part of it and that is continuing to run to things and not from it.”

In the last five weeks, Arizona’s defense has held the Jaguars’ NFL-leading rushing attack to less than 100 yards, limited the Titans to seven points and shut out New York’s injury-riddled offense.

On Sunday, Manning went 27-of-45 for 263 yards, no touchdowns and two interceptions. New York only rolled up 43 rushing yards on 2.2-yards per carry, went 1-of-14 on third downs and moved backward at several key moments due to holding penalties.

“We played stellar football,” said cornerback Patrick Peterson. “I just wish we definitely could play like that all year long.”

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