CHARLOTTE, N.C. – The Cardinals had made it work for so long, losing defensive stalwarts and offensive playmakers and not only one, but two quarterbacks.
Eventually, though, there was only so much "Next Man Up" magic they could muster.
"The end is never fun," coach Bruce Arians said, his eyes a bit watery after the Cardinals lost Saturday to the Carolina Panthers, 27-16, in a Wild Card playoff game. "You never want a season like this to end with some of the great things this team has accomplished and what they overcame. I don't know if I've ever been prouder of a group of guys that go out and fight every week.
"We fought our ass off again tonight. We just didn't make enough plays down the stretch."
In the mist and the mud of Bank of America Stadium, the Cardinals held the halftime lead but never did generate enough offense. A series of laterals on the game's final play led to a loss of 20 yards and left the Cardinals with only 78 yards of offense in the game – the lowest total in a playoff game in NFL history.
Yet the chances Arians alluded to were there, and why the locker room was quiet after.
"After everything we've been through as a team, and the thought that not everyone will be back, that's what hurts me the most," safety Tony Jefferson said.
Change is coming, as with any offseason. Even wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald, whose bulky contract will force a decision in a few weeks to determine if he remains in Arizona, was asked about his future.
"The taste of defeat is the only thing I can think about right now," Fitzgerald said. "I'm just proud of the guys in this locker room."
It might have been different without a disastrous third quarter, and a sequence of plays that derailed what the Cardinals had managed. Buoyed by a win in the turnover battle – including an interception by cornerback Antonio Cromartie that was returned to the Carolina 17-yard line, setting up a touchdown -- the Cardinals held a 14-13 lead at halftime and managed to force a punt on the first possession of the second half.
But the punt trapped the Cardinals at their own 8-yard line. On third-and-10, Lindley lofted a deep pass to wide receiver Michael Floyd, who had gotten open but looked to be grabbed down the field. There was no flag, much to Arians' disgust.
"I think everyone saw it, except for the guys with the striped shirts,' Arians said, adding, "but they didn't fumble the ball. … They didn't lose the game."
That came a short time later. Punter Drew Butler, who had a poor game in averaging less than 35 yards a punt and giving the Panthers too many short fields, managed to boot one only 31 yards. The Panthers scored a 39-yard touchdown on the next play when one-time Cardinal running back Fozzy Whittaker took a screen pass and broke a pair of tackles for a 20-14 lead. On the kickoff return, Ted Ginn fumbled, and the Panthers recovered at the Arizona 3. Aided by a controversial third-down pass interference call on Jefferson against tight end Greg Olsen, Carolina got the touchdown.
"I don't remember touching him, but that was a pivotal part of the game," Jefferson said.
It was suddenly 27-14, and the Cards never could make it close.
There was a brief moment where hope floated, when safety Rashad Johnson alertly picked up a ball that to the naked eye looked like a Cam Newton incomplete pass. But the ball was fumbled and batted instead, and Johnson grabbed it and ran it back to the Carolina 8. With more than 10 minutes left, the Cardinals could have done damage with a touchdown.
Instead, quarterback Ryan Lindley tried to force a pass to Fitzgerald on the very first play. Linebacker Luke Kuechly was standing right in front of Fitzgerald for the easy interception. That was that.
"Sometimes you've got to eat a play," Lindley said. "You can't force stuff like that."
Lindley didn't turn the ball over in the first half but that changed in the second half. His early one-yard touchdown pass to tight end Darren Fells faded into the background after two second-half interceptions. Lindley completed 16-of-28 passes for only 82 yards. The Cardinals rushed for only 27 yards on 15 attempts.
It was never ideal for the Cardinals to have to use a third-string quarterback in the playoffs, and the losses of Carson Palmer and Drew Stanton clearly hurt.
"There is disappointment, regardless of the circumstances or situation or where I was six weeks ago, eight weeks ago, whatever, you are called upon to win football games," Lindley said. "We didn't do that.
"You've got to find some positive out of this … the only tough part about that is there are 52 other guys that we don't get to play together anymore."
The Panthers got 123 yards rushing from running back Jonathan Stewart and overcame an erratic passing effort by Newton (18 for 32 for 198 yards, two scores and the Cromartie pick.) But the Cardinals only had one thought postgame, and that was about themselves.
"This whole month of December, (the defense) started letting this team down, especially up front," veteran linebacker Larry Foote said. "That's the disappointing part of it. The young guys have to take away from it, no matter what you did the first couple months of the season, you have to come to the stage, week in and week out."
The Cards could end up with significant changes depending on how General Manager Steve Keim orchestrates the offseason. Free agency alone affects key veterans like Foote, defensive tackle Tommy Kelly, linebacker Sam Acho, guard Paul Fanaika and Cromartie.
That doesn't include possible decisions on other players, including those with big contracts like Fitzgerald and defensive tackle Darnell Dockett.
But Arians was about what the team did accomplish, not what it didn't this season. He said he would "never buy into" the fact injuries robbed the Cardinals of a deep playoff run.
"We have to make gameplans to win games and ask players to do things we think they are capable of doing to win games," Arians said.
And he refused to look at the season, because of injuries, being a missed opportunity.
"These guys overcame," Arians said. "This was a great season. We didn't miss any kind of opportunity. Other than scoring that touchdown down there."
Images from the wild card matchup in Carolina