By Darren Urban, Tribune
The Cardinals trudged off the Sun Devil Stadium
field Sunday, victims of a doppelgänger of a nightmare, stunned by a 31-28 overtime loss to the lowly San Francisco 49ers. A near-rally from a 28-3 deficit didn’t matter, not as much as getting swept by a 49ers team that might end up calling the two wins against the Cardinals their only ones in 2004. The Cardinals were shocked by the outcome, just as they had been after an identical 31-28 overtime loss in San Francisco back in October.
It was a game that could sap the motivation from the final three games of the season. The Cardinals (4-9) are not eliminated from the playoff race despite a four-game losing streak, but the players know better.
They also know they have plenty to play for, thanks to an increasingly upset coach.
“We might not be looking at a good situation, (but) we don’t know Denny Green that well either,” running back Emmitt Smith said. “Trust me, the next three weeks, people will be looked at.”
Added linebacker James Darling, “Coach Green, he don’t settle for bad teams. On bad teams, players have to go.”
So there will be three games to evaluate the roster, a process that started Sunday for quarterback Josh McCown
in his return to the starting lineup.
McCown’s numbers were OK — 26-of-44, 307 yards, one interception — and he orchestrated the 25-point comeback. The announced crowd of 35,069 was going nuts when McCown ran in a two-point conversion with 2:40 left in regulation, and the comeback looked like a sure thing when San Francisco’s Terry Jackson fumbled the ball to Arizona’s David Macklin with 2:16 left.
But the Cards stalled at the San Francisco 4-yard line, Neil Rackers kicked a field goal, and the teams went to overtime tied at 28 for a second time this season.
“To not seal the deal hurts,” McCown said. “It’s amazing things work out that way.”
Overtime was ugly. The 49ers (2-11) were forced to punt on their initial possession, but not before reaching the Arizona 37, and their punt was downed at the Cardinals 7. The Cardinals went nowhere — tackle L.J. Shelton might have blown out his knee on the series, the injury to go along with the game’s insult — and San Francisco got the ball back on the Arizona 49.
There was no reason to worry when Arizona’s Bertrand Berry got his NFL-best 12th sack on first down, but after an incompletion and the 49ers facing third-and-17, quarterback Ken Dorsey somehow found Cedrick Wilson for a 19-yard gain in the middle of zone coverage.
“It was just bad coverage,” Green said.
It also cost the Cardinals the game. Clearly reeling from the play, the Cards couldn’t stop Maurice Hicks from running for 24 yards combined on the next two plays. Kicker Todd Peterson ended the game just as he had done in San Francisco.
“It is a relief to get a win,” said 49ers coach Dennis Erickson, who was rumored to have been fired today had the 49ers lost. “Our players deserve it.”
The Cardinals weren’t sure what they deserved. Green said five major special teams mistakes caused the huge deficit, including a 34-yard field goal miss by Rackers that ended up being crucial. The offense did nothing until well into the third quarter. The defense allowed Hicks, a backup, 139 yards rushing and the inexperienced Dorsey three touchdown passes.
Green didn’t want to talk about losing twice to the team many consider the worst in the NFL — “It doesn’t matter who you lose to, it’s that you lose,” he said — and really, it has little bearing on Arizona’s plight.
What has gone wrong with the Cardinals is the bigger question. Green said he didn’t know, and neither did his players.
“If I knew the answers to those things, I’d know how to find Osama bin Laden and a whole lot of other folks,” Smith said.
Perhaps three weeks is enough for Green and the Cardinals to figure it out, at least to help heading into 2005.
“We’re learning every weekend,” guard Cameron Spikes said. “Too bad it’s just the wrong way.”