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Four Down Territory: Cardinals in the hunt

Now when TV graphic lists the Arizona Cardinals as one of the teams “In the Hunt” for a playoff spot I won’t laugh it off. They are. Legitimately, miraculously, inexplicably, the Cardinals are in the hunt for an NFC playoff spot.

You are now allowed to think about it. It’s probably only slightly less of a long shot than it was when the day began, but now that they’ve beaten the best team remaining on their schedule – ending a five game losing streak to hated division rival San Francisco – you have my blessing to at least ponder the possibility of a postseason.

More important than even the faint notion of the playoff is that the Cardinals finally punched their personal schoolyard bully square in the nose. The last four losses to the Niners were so lopsided even the Arizona players were questioning the validity of terming this rivalry…a rivalry. And to me, the real victory is such; the Cardinals — once 1-6 — could/should finish 8-8. That’s remarkable.

Credit to Coach Ken Whisenhunt, who reminded the media “You guys stuck a fork in us quite a while ago.” We all did. That is, everybody but your team. Keeping this team from quitting has earned you the right to throw a jab in my direction, no doubt.

While I attempt to un-stick the fork, let’s veer into Four Down Territory.

First Down: Defense

Ray Horton’s group was like a Tarantino movie. Stunning. Awesome. A brutal assault. In the second half, the Niners had two first downs. One was the Frank Gore touchdown run. The other came via a penalty. And that’s it. The net yards of the 49ers final six drives: 2, 8, 20, 8, 4, 9. Five sacks for the game. I can’t recall a time when a Cardinals defensive unit was this trustworthy with a lead.

Second Down: Skelton

The Cardinals overcame his three turnovers (two interceptions and one fumble) in part because of their defense and because Skelton made plays. Big plays. Pressed into duty with Kevin Kolb’s head injury, Skelton was 14-18 with 195 yards, two touchdowns and a pick in the second half. And as colleague Adam Green points out….his fourth quarter passer rating was a perfect 158.3.

Third Down: Larry Fitzgerald

When he reflects on the win, does Fitz ponder his leaping touchdown, his 149 yards receiving, his 6th season amassing over a thousand yards receiving? Or is it the block that flattened Tarell Brown on Early Doucett’s 60 yard touchdown?

Fourth Down: Harbaugh’s headache

His beautiful fake field goal was ruined by a Whisenhunt challenge flag and a faulty replay system. His offense sputtered like a cranky old car in the red zone (0-3 in red zone efficiency, 0-2 in goal to go efficiency). He asked Alex Smith to throw the ball 37 times which hardly seems a recipe for success and he didn’t give the ball to Frank Gore on either 3rd and one or 4th and one late in the game. Bad day at the office.