Cornerback Greg Toler (28) races toward his 102-yard interception return for a score during Sunday's 38-10 win over Detroit, flanked by teammates William Gay (22) and Kerry Rhodes (25).
The tears flowed for Adrian Wilson, in part because he had hit a milestone in his career but also because his team had finally won.
The veteran safety felt the pain of the losing streak as much as anyone, and the defense suffered the sting of the previous week's blowout loss in Seattle. So when the Cardinals' defense dominated Sunday, scoring a pair of touchdowns as the Cards ran away with a 38-10 win over the Detroit Lions to snap a nine-game losing streak, relief was part of the resulting joy.
"A lot of the emotions that are coming out now are just thinking through the hard times and being where we're at now," Wilson said, later adding once his composure was regained, "we had to bounce back from what we did last week."
That was undisputed after the performance at University of Phoenix Stadium. For weeks the mantra from the Cards' defense was that they simply had to do more, given the struggles of the Cardinals' offense. Against the Lions (4-10), they did more.
"I think we played the game we've been looking for all season," said defensive end Calais Campbell, who dominated with a sack and four tackles for loss.
The first two touchdown "drives" of the Cardinals (5-9) covered five and three yards, following the recovery of a muffed punt and a Patrick Peterson interception return near the goal line, respectively. Safety Rashad Johnson returned an interception 53 yards for a touchdown right before halftime.
Then late, after the Lions were threatening to pull within one score inside the Cardinals' 5-yard line – the Lions actually had a touchdown pass negated after they were flagged for a delay of game penalty – cornerback Greg Toler leaped to pick off a third Mathew Stafford pass and return it 102 yards for the game-clinching touchdown. The Cards had a couple sacks, including one from Wilson that made him only the sixth player in NFL history to reach the 25-sack, 25-interception plateau.
Detroit wide receiver Calvin Johnson did post a decent stat line with 10 catches for 121 yards as he battled Peterson most of the game, but Stafford ended up with a terrible 37.6 passer rating and were dormant after scoring the first touchdown of the game.
"One game, one accident, one thing that happens doesn't define who you are," defensive tackle Darnell Dockett said, referring to the Seattle meltdown. "All week, I kept saying to (defensive coordinator) Ray (Horton), 'Let us go, go eat, go eat.' He did that, had a great game plan, and we executed."
The Cards needed that kind of defense. Offensively, the Cardinals still couldn't consistently sustain much, playing with rookie Ryan Lindley at quarterback again and trying to adjust to a new center (Adam Snyder, moving over from right guard) and new right guard (Pat McQuistan) because of injuries.
Running back Beanie Wells did rush for three touchdowns while gaining 67 yards on 17 carries, But the unit gained just 196 yards and had issues gaining first downs in the fourth quarter to burn up clock before Toler stepped in and delivered the backbreaker.
"There are going to be ups and downs," said Lindley, who finished 14-of-21 passing for 104 yards and an early interception the defense made sure was meaningless. "Something bad is going to happen at some point. It happens to everyone at some point in the game. You just have to keep working through it."
Not that it mattered Sunday.
"We have three games left to show this NFL world what we're about as a defense," safety Kerry Rhodes said.
Peterson's seventh interception of the season – his fourth game in a row with a pick – is the most by a Cardinals' player since Kwamie Lassiter had nine in 2001. Toler's return was the longest in the long franchise history of the Cardinals.
"We always set the bar high as a defense," Toler said. "We're always taught that defense wins championships. We have the offense's back just as much as they have ours."
The Cardinals aren't going to win a championship this season, but at least they final got a win, one that "tastes like filet mignon," Peterson said.
"When you go through a stretch like we did, it's tough," coach Ken Whisenhunt said. "Our guys stuck together. There was a lot of talk about if our team had quit. When it was 7-0 and we were punting (early), I didn't see any quit in our guys. I'm proud of them."
Down to two games left on the schedule, there were – not surprisingly – smiles in the locker room that hadn't been seen in weeks.
Smiles, and in the case of Wilson, a few tears.
"We had to bounce back," Wilson said, "from what we did last week."