Kicker Jay Feely and holder Dave Zastudil hug after Feely's game-winning field goal Sunday in Tennessee.
NASHVILLE, Ten. – Titans quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick had shredded them down the stretch, making a 17-point lead evaporate in less than four minutes, and now the Tennessee was going to have the ball first in overtime when a touchdown would crush their season.
Collectively, the Cardinals didn't flinch.
"There was no panic on the sideline," coach Bruce Arians said. "Someone knew they would step up."
Faith had to be acute, since the Cards had been waiting for that play to be made the entire end of the fourth quarter. But the faith was rewarded in an overtime interception by cornerback Antoine Cason, an interception the Cardinals turned into the game-winning Jay Feely field goal in a more-exciting-than-necessary 37-34 victory at LP Field.
"We might have gotten a little too comfortable there at the end of this one," quarterback Carson Palmer said. "The important
this is defensively we stepped up and made a play.
"Sometimes these games are good for you."
Good for you only if it ends up as a win. The Cardinals (9-5) clinch a winning season for only the third time since moving to Arizona in 1988, but such a pace only keeps playoff hopes breathing. Both teams the Cards are chasing – San Francisco and Carolina – won Sunday, and help will be needed for the Cards to get into the postseason.
But it would have been much worse had the Cards absorbed a loss Sunday, which looked near impossible once Cason – the man who benefitted most with playing time after Tyrann Mathieu's season-ending knee injury – made his first interception of the game. That came with 6:13 left on the clock, and he returned it 20 yards for a touchdown and a 34-17 lead.
"We settled down a little bit," linebacker Karlos Dansby said. "Then they started coming back. It was a 12-round fight. You gotta love that, especially this time of year."
Fitzpatrick -– who grew up going to Arizona State games and attended Gilbert Highland High School – caught fire. The Titans signal-caller actually played well most of the game, but he suddenly couldn't be stopped.
He quickly drove Tennessee (5-9) down the field for a touchdown with 3:12 left. The Cardinals recovered the onside kick, but Arians, choosing to make the Titans burn timeouts, called three straight inside running plays and punted with the 10-point lead.
"I got a little conservative," Arians admitted.
The Titans moved down to the Arizona 6-yard line before kicking a field goal with 52 seconds left to shave the lead to seven. It wouldn't have mattered, but Larry Fitzgerald – leaping in the air to grab the onside kick – was drilled and lost the ball. Not only did the Titans get the ball, but Fitzgerald left the game to be tested for a concussion.
Inevitably, Fitzpatrick – who was 36-for-58 for 402 yards and four touchdown passes – tied the game with a TD pass to Michael Preston. And the stunned Cardinals were headed to overtime.
"We knew we just needed the ball back," center Lyle Sendlein said. "That was quite a storm we weathered. We don't want to go through that. But it would have been easy to fold up and doubt your team."
Overtime rules dictate each team gets the ball at least once unless a touchdown is scored, and when the Titans got the ball first, their ability to get in the end zone after their fourth-quarter performance had to be a concern.
But after Fitzpatrick hit Nate Washington for a 33-yard gain to get into Arizona territory, the quarterback came under heavy pressure on the next play. The ball floated to Cason, who suddenly was the hero for a second time.
"What was going through my mind was 'Score,' " Cason said. "Just get the game over with."
Cason didn't make it that far, but he did get it out to the Cardinals 46. Without Fitzgerald and running back Andre Ellington (who left with a thigh bruise after piling up 158 yards combined rushing and receiving), Arians mostly stuck to Rashard Mendenhall runs to get into Feely range.
"Even in the overtime, they got a big chunk, we could have easily said, 'Oh man, we gave the game away,' " defensive end Calais Campbell said. "But Cason made the play.
"Fitzpatrick looked like one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL today. But in the end we did what we had to do, and enough was enough."
The Cardinals rushed for 145 yards – Ellington had 71 on 10 carries and Mendenhall added 69 in 21 – while the passing game outside of Ellington did just enough. Palmer finished 20-of-30 for 231 yards a a touchdown pass to tight end Jake Ballard.
Statistically, the Titans ended up being a little shinier. The Cardinals could not care less.
"At that point it doesn't matter," Feely said. "It's about making a play and winning the game. At this point in the season, nothing matters. It doesn't matter how pretty it was. You just have to win."