Cornerback Bryant McFadden (25) returns a fumble forced by teammate Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie in the fourth quarter of Sunday's loss.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. – There were a few more yards between the opponent and the goal line, but the exact same amount of time left on the clock.
That wasn't the reason coach Ken Whisenhunt invoked the Cards' most haunting memory after the Titans' final 99-yard drive Sunday, that of the Super Bowl loss, but it proved an ugly coincidence. And in parts of the locker room, it felt that way too.
The defensive backs in particular sat around in partial uniform longer than usual after the 20-17 loss, no doubt discussing how Vince Young collected 94 passing yards on the last possession on nine completions.
"I'd be lying if I was sitting here and said I'm not worried about it because we fought for a full 60 minutes and, at the end, we came up short in the last six seconds of the game," safety Antrel Rolle said.
Defensive end Darnell Dockett just shook his head at what might have been.
"Unfortunately, it had to hurt at the end," Dockett said. "I'd rather get blown out than lose a game like that."
Instead, one play – the final laser beam gunned from Young to Kenny Britt for a touchdown – altered so much.
The positives the Cardinals showed Sunday don't necessarily get lost, of course. Matt Leinart isn't Kurt Warner, but he did look like a quarterback who can win in this league, especially in the second half. Defensively, the yardage allowed wasn't a résumé-builder, but for most of the game, it was a study on how not to let Young burn you. The Cards also showed a physical side rarely on display, pounding away against one of the more physical teams in the league in a game that felt playoff-esque.
If the Cardinals just could have knocked down that final pass, however, or pulled Young down for just one more sack, they'd be sitting at 8-3 heading into their "Sunday Night Football" date with the Vikings celebrating yet another step toward becoming an elite team.
Britt's catch means all that is on hold. The 49ers won Sunday, and suddenly, if the Cards can't beat the Vikings and the Niners can win in Seattle – certainly no lock – the Cardinals' meeting in San Francisco the following Monday night will be for the division lead.
Fortunes always have shifted quickly in the NFL. The Cards saw that when Kurt Warner's eyesight still couldn't come completely into focus, forcing Leinart into the lineup. They saw that when the Titans converted fourth down three different times on the final drive, and when Young's tipped pass – which looked like a sure interception – landed into the arms of an in-stride Bo Scaife for an improbable 19-yard gain that truly jump-started the Titans' winning march.
"We just didn't pull it out," cornerback Bryant McFadden said quietly afterward. "Sometimes you get the bear. Sometimes the bear gets you."
What to do differently? Maybe nothing. The Cards could have gone for it on fourth-and-1 at the Tennessee 45 midway through the fourth quarter, but Ben Graham's punt pinned the Titans at their own 2, and eventually, the Cards forced a fumble to get the ball back.
Whisenhunt ran clock with a run play and two high-percentage short passes on the Cards' final possession, eventually leading to a perfect Graham punt to the Tennessee 1. "There are always more plays to be made," Leinart said, and while that's true, few would guess Young would be able to direct a team on such a long touchdown drive with such little time.
"When you are six seconds away from winning it, it makes it even tougher," Whisenhunt said.
Whisenhunt praised his team for staying together, a nod to both its ability to rally behind a quarterback change and from an early deficit.
The last time the other team drove for a touchdown on the Cardinals to beat them late, there was no way to come back from the sucker punch until the following season.
This time, there was a little less on the line. And the chance at redemption was just seven days away.
"It's all good," Dockett said. "We have to bounce back. We have America's team next week and we have to have some excitement. No use pouting about it. Hell, they won the ballgame. We'll be OK."