By Scott Bordow, Tribune Columnist
They slowly walked off the field two weeks ago, their heads hung in shame.
They ran off the field Sunday, their heads held high.
Two weeks ago, they choked on a certain victory.
Sunday, they made sure defeat was never an option.
The fourth-quarter collapse against the San Francisco 49ers?
The Cardinals defense didn’t just flush it out of its system Sunday. It poured some extra-strength Roto-Rooter down the drain and cleaned out the pipes.
Arizona 25, Seattle 17, and to think: If the Cardinals make one play against the 49ers in that fourth quarter — just one play — they’re 3-3 and a half-game out of the lead in the NFC West.
Ah, such sweet dreams. But consider this slice of reality: Arizona now hits the road for games against Buffalo and Miami, who sport a combined record of 2-11.
The Cardinals (cough, cough) could be 4-4 (cough, cough) and in playoff contention (cough, cough) when they return home in mid-November.
Of course, they could also be 2-6. These are the Cardinals, until proven otherwise.
But if the defense continues to play the way it did Sunday, ridicule will give way to respect.
Arizona imposed its will on Seattle. The Cardinals’ cornerbacks played press man-to-man coverage, and defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast called a blitz on almost every down. Free safety Adrian Wilson was in the Seahawks’ backfield as often as tailback Shaun Alexander.
The constant pressure disrupted Seattle’s timing, and quarterback Matt Hasselbeck
completed just 14-of-41 passes for 195 yards, with four interceptions. The Seahawks had 257 total yards.
"We wanted to be aggressive and get after them the whole time," said linebacker Raynoch Thompson
The Cardinals’ game plan was a direct reflection of their cave in at San Francisco. Arizona laid back and let the 49ers attack in the fourth quarter.
That won’t happen again. The Cardinals decided during the bye week if they’re going to go down, they’re going to go down swinging.
"That’s what we think our style will be," said coach Dennis Green.
It suits the Cardinals. They don’t have the size — or the talent — to win many head-to-head battles. But this is the quickest, nastiest defense Arizona has had in years, thanks in part to rookies Darnell Dockett and Karlos Dansby.
Might as well turn them loose.
"Today we had a chance to show the athletic ability of our players," Green said.
The San Francisco collapse not only caused the Cardinals to change their game plan, it served as the best kind of motivation.
Pendergast didn’t show his players film of the loss to the 49ers. He didn’t have to. The players took it personally.
"One of the things we talked about all week was we knew we didn’t finish off that football game," said nose tackle Russell Davis. "It wasn’t going to happen again."
The Cardinals made sure of that by intercepting Hasselbeck on Seattle’s final two possessions. By that point, Hasselbeck’s head was spinning like Linda Blair in "The Exorcist," and Arizona’s defense had performed an exorcism of its own.
"Those two turnovers at the end were huge for us," Thompson said.
The defense will have to carry the day for Arizona because it’s clear Green doesn’t have much confidence in his offense.
With the Cardinals nursing a 18-17 lead and 5:07 left, he called five straight running plays for Emmitt Smith rather than let quarterback Josh McCown throw the ball and try to extend the lead. The conservative strategy — Green called it "smart" — allowed Seattle to get the ball back at its 17-yard line with 2:49 remaining, needing only a field goal to win. San Francisco, The Sequel? Not this time.
"The only way to get rid of that was with a win," Davis said. It’s impossible to tell whether the Cardinals took a significant step forward Sunday. The NFL is a week-to-week crapshoot. But where there was surrender two weeks ago, there was defiance Sunday. And sometimes, a change in attitude can mean a change in altitude.