Cardinals safety Antoine Bethea forces a fumble by Washington tight end Vernon Davis during Sunday's game.
LANDOVER, MD – Troy Niklas shook his head, knowing how close he had come – twice – to making the one play the Cardinals needed Sunday at FedEx Field.
At the end of the first half, he made a 21-yard catch but was stopped one yard short of the goal line, something the Cardinals could not end up pushing over. At the end of the game, he had a leaping touchdown catch glance off his fingertips.
"Sometimes you're the hero, sometimes you're the zero," the tight end said quietly after a frustrating 20-15 loss to Washington. "Today, I've got to wear it. I was the zero. You've got to make those plays."
The game was a microcosm of the Cardinals of late, as the team was officially eliminated from the postseason. The offense got into the red zone six times. The Cardinals (6-8) scored five field goals and quarterback Blaine Gabbert threw an interception. They went touchdown-less.
The Cardinals haven't scored a touchdown since wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald caught a second-quarter score against the Rams. The drought has now extended to 10-plus quarters.
And yet, "one touchdown today, we win," coach Bruce Arians said.
"Time of possession doesn't mean crap," Arians said. "It's production time when you have it. That was poor."
Arians said Gabbert will remain the starting quarterback.
Arians again praised his team's effort as well as a defense that again played well enough to win. But behind a makeshift offensive line, Gabbert struggled more than any other game he's started for the Cards.
He finished 16-for-41 for 189 yards and the pick, rescued from a second one at the outset of the final drive when Niklas – in a hero turn – wrestled the ball away from the defender before going to the ground.
The running game did enough to win. The Cardinals rushed for 141 yards, with Kerwynn Williams gaining 61 on 17 carries before leaving with a quad injury and Elijhaa Penny finishing, getting 45 yards on 10 carries himself.
"It was a game of missed opportunities and that falls on me," Gabbert said.
Washington (6-8) benefitted from Gabbert's lost fumble on the first possession of the game, setting up a six-yard touchdown "drive" to open the scoring. But the Cardinals dominated all day. It wasn't as if the
Cardinals couldn't move the ball, it was just that they couldn't move it once they got inside the 20.
Kicker Phil Dawson booted five field goals and added a "mortar" short kickoff that the Cardinals recovered clean to start the second half. It should've led to a momentum-driving touchdown. It got the Cardinals a field goal.
"Third downs and red zone, we just didn't execute," Arians said.
The Cards had the ball for more than 36 minutes, and at one point they held the ball for more than 23 of the 30 minutes played. Yet they never led. The offense could only convert four of 19 third downs.
"(The defense) did a good job," said safety Antoine Bethea, who forced a fumble. "If we could have gotten a couple of possessions back, we would. At the end of the day, it's a team game. We came to win."
They still had a chance to win on a final drive. Niklas couldn't haul in his chance. And on the Cardinals' final play, it looked like Larry Fitzgerald made a clutch fourth-down conversion inside the red zone – but the ball trickled from his hands as he went to the ground.
The Cardinals have two games left, including a home game Christmas Eve against the Giants. The playoffs aren't available. That shouldn't matter, Arians said, saying the Cardinals will play for "each other."
"It's about pride," Bethea said. "You've got to put good film out there. You never know what the future is, after the season. You've got to play for one another, play for yourself, and play for your future."
Images of the Cardinals in their Week 15 matchup against Washington