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The Plays That Shaped The Season

Posted Jan 13, 2011

Moments that impacted 2010

Larry Fitzgerald hauls in a catch to convert fourth-and-15 against the Cowboys on Christmas.


In 2010, the Cardinals took part in 2,345 plays during the regular season.

Plenty were memorable – both good and bad. During the marathon of 16 games and the resulting roller-coaster of emotions, it’s easy to have a bunch of instances stick in the brain. The cornerbacks’ twin TD interception returns against Dallas. Kicker Jay Feely’s fake field-goal run for a score. Max Hall’s helmet-losing fumble that turned into a Levi Brown touchdown. Even Deon Butler’s 63-yard touchdown catch for Seattle against three Cards’ defenders, a low point in what turned out to be a killer home loss to the Seahawks.

But then there are a few other plays that define a season. They might not be the most important plays of the year, but their impact resonated. In chronological order:

Breaston makes the strip

It’s been recounted many times, when wide receiver Steve Breaston turned what should have been disaster (a fumble by quarterback Derek Anderson returned for a should-have-been-touchdown by Rams defensive lineman Clifton Ryan) into a major save when he stripped Ryan right before the goal line. The resulting fumble was recovered by the Cardinals (linemen Brandon Keith, Lyle Sendlein and Levi Brown had all hustled downfield just in case) and the Cards later pulled out a win. Breaston also had 132 yards receiving with Larry Fitzgerald banged up that day. “That’s a guy,” coach Ken Whisenhunt said, “who understands the game.” In a season of not enough, Breaston’s effort wouldn’t be forgotten.

To the house for a house

It didn’t hurt that LaRod Stephens-Howling’s 102-yard kickoff return to open the game against the Raiders won a house for a lucky fan. But it was also the first stamp in what was a breakout season for The Hyphen, who played very well on special teams as a rookie but proved to be a dangerous and invaluable piece of the Cards in his second year.

Injuries slowed him by the end of the season, but he finished just two yards shy of the NFL lead in kick return yards anyway and was among the leaders in average. Plus, the Raider runback sparked an early win (and was the first of a stunning 12 return touchdowns by the Cards, second in NFL history).

Picking a time to change

The quarterback shuffle clearly became a major storyline of the season. The first imprint came in San Diego. With the Cards struggling on both sides of the ball and trailing 21-7 (with a Kerry Rhodes fumble return the only Arizona score), Anderson threw an interception returned by linebacker Shaun Phillips 31 yards for a touchdown. When the Cards got the ball back moments later, it was rookie Max Hall – who had briefly played at the end of the Atlanta loss – getting his first significant playing time. It turned into his first start the following week, and from that point on, Hall, Anderson and rookie John Skelton all received their own chunk of time in the starting lineup.

Rhodes’ Saintly play

Rhodes teamed with Darnell Dockett for what became the biggest play in what turned out to be the high point of the season – the upset win over the defending Super Bowl champs that put the Cards at 3-2 going into the bye.

Rhodes, who made big plays all season, scooped up a fumble caused by Dockett and returned it 27 yards for a score to provide what turned out to be the game-winning points. The defense confounded Drew Brees most of the day, possibly the high point of the defense's season too (especially after DRC's TD INT to end the game with an exclamation point). Like Stephens-Howling’s play, it underscored how much the return game impacted the Cards’ season.

Halloween’s nightmare ending

After beating the Saints, the upstart Buccaneers came to town and caused serious havoc for Hall, so much so that Anderson eventually replaced him. Anderson engineered a comeback from 17 points down to actually give the Cards a lead midway through the fourth quarter. The Bucs came back to forge ahead by three points, but the Cardinals and Anderson worked the ball down the field to the Tampa 20.

Then Anderson’s first down pass with 2:15 left to Larry Fitzgerald was thrown into heavy coverage and intercepted. (The defense, then, couldn't stop LeGarrette Blount). It was a gut-punch ending in a game headed in a much different direction. By itself, it may have been overcome, but then the next week …

Cards get Favred

The Cardinals went to Minnesota the following game and were in control most of the day. A fourth-down stand inside their own 5 up two touchdowns with only about six minutes left seemed to seal an improbable victory. The Vikings managed to rally, but they still needed a touchdown with less than 30 seconds left and they were still 25 yards from the end zone – which is when Brett Favre drilled a 25-yard touchdown pass to tight end Visanthe Shiancoe to send the game to overtime. With all the momentum, the Vikings did the expected and won the game, a second straight devastating loss that seemed to take the air out of the season.

Fourth-and-Fitzteen

Out of the playoffs, the game on Christmas night didn’t mean much in the grand scheme. But it meant a lot to a team hoping to get a noticeable win on national television. That seemed destined after building a 21-3 lead -- until the Cowboys and a third-string QB rallied for a two-point lead with just over a minute left, leaving things to the Cards’ own third-stringer-turned-starter Skelton. Stuck deep in his own territory and facing a frightening fourth-and-15 to keep hope alive, Skelton managed to find Larry Fitzgerald – for Fitz’s lone catch of the game, amazingly – for a 26-yard gain (pictured at the top of the article). The crowd came alive and so did the Cards, making sure the last memory of the season at home was Feely’s game-winning field goal – and, in what had been rare, making sure it was a good memory.

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