Cardinals cornerback Patrick Peterson walks away as Giants receiver Hakeem Nicks celebrates what turned out to be the game-winning TD catch Sunday.
Rookie cornerback Patrick Peterson trudged off the field and into the tunnel, helmet on, head down and stunned, a reaction Sunday that served as the perfect microcosm of the Cardinals' season thus far.
The Cards lost a third straight Sunday – this one 31-27 to the Giants at University of Phoenix Stadium – that followed virtually the same script as the previous two, with an inability to finish and chances to rectify what had gone wrong. This time, the Cardinals took a 10-point lead with a little more than five minutes remaining, only to have the Giants dominate from then on.
That's three losses by a total of eight points, and a team working very hard afterward to keep their disappointment contained.
"Everybody is going to point fingers and say we're not good and all that," defensive tackle Darnell Dockett said. "But I am confident with this team. I will take this team anywhere, any place, any time. We just have to find a way to finish.
"It's one thing when you go into a game and you don't have a clue and you're getting beat from the start. That's not the case. We have to find a way to finish. And we will do that."
The message was consistent, to continue to push forward – "What options do we have," quarterback Kevin Kolb asked rhetorically – but the way the game rolled out will make the evening rough on the Cards (1-3) as they replay what could have been.
The Cards were nursing a three-point lead in the fourth quarter but the defense, having another impressive day at that point, forced a Giants' punt after Kolb had been intercepted by former Cardinals and current Giants safety Antrel Rolle.
Responding with a 77-yard touchdown drive, the offense was jump-started by a 16-yard catch by Larry Fitzgerald, who on the next play made a key block to free Beanie Wells around the left end for a 39-yard run. Not only did both plays put their respective ballcarriers over 100 yards for the game, but Fitzgerald leaped with emotion as Wells was tackled, sensing something good.
"At that point," Fitzgerald said, "I thought we had a firm grasp on the game."
That didn't change three plays later, when Wells ran it in from two yards out for his third touchdown of the day and a 27-17 lead with 5:16 left.
The grasp was quickly loosened, and things went very bad very fast. It took the Giants (3-1) just seven plays and 99 seconds to go 80 yards for a touchdown to pull within a field goal. The Cardinals, with 3:37 remaining, couldn't gain a first down, and the Dave Zastudil punt was flat and traveled just 40 yards, allowing an 18-yard return and New York the ball at the Arizona 48-yard line.
Giants quarterback Eli Manning, who was an outstanding 14-for-17 for 180 yards in the fourth quarter, somehow managed to avoid the rush and get the ball to receiver Victor Cruz for what turned out to be the most controversial play of the game.
Cruz gained 19 yards, but at the end of the run stumbled and then fell to the ground, dropping the ball without being touched. Cruz believed he had given himself up, which ends the play. The Cardinals thought it was a fumble. Coach Ken Whisenhunt tried to challenge the play – the Cards picked up the loose ball – but after conferring, the officials told him he could not challenge.
The Cards said the right things afterward, that the game didn't turn on the call, but were clearly upset – one player was still complaining to the officials as they ran off the field.
"There were a lot of calls in that game," Whisenhunt said. "You can't look at just one."
Whisenhunt was right, of course. The Cardinals's first three trips to the Giants' red zone three times in the first half provided two field goals and a Kolb lost fumble, lost points that could have changed the dynamic of the game.
"(Cruz) definitely fumbled," Peterson said, "but I wouldn't say it put us in a hole. We still have to play football."
Former NFL head of officials Mike Pereira, now a Fox analyst, said via Twitter he thought it was a fumble. Cruz said he thought he had been touched by a defender. Manning said he thought the Giants "got a break on that one, I think."
The next play, Manning found Hakeem Nicks over Peterson for what turned out to be the game-winning 29-yard touchdown pass to take the stunning lead.
"That's a little thing called momentum," defensive end Calais Campbell said, adding that the non-fumble "hurts."
"You were a little bit distracted because you felt like it's our ball and we would have won the game. We were still kind of caught up in the emotion, and they line up and throw a deep ball."
For a third straight game, however, the Cardinals had the ball in the waning minutes with a chance to win. In Washington it ended with a Chansi Stuckey fumble, in Seattle, a Kolb interception. This time was a simple inability to gain a first down. Kolb, trying to throw a screen pass, ended up taking a 10-yard sack on second-and-1.
He got nine yards back on a pass to tight end Todd Heap, but with 56 seconds left and needing two yards on fourth down at the New York 30, Kolb tried to squeeze a quick slant to Fitzgerald. Giants cornerback Corey Webster came from behind to knock it away, and the game was over.
"These are tough lessons," Whisenhunt said.
Whisenhunt angled his comments toward the positive the best he could afterward. Wells did set career-highs in carries (27), yards (138) and three touchdowns. Fitzgerald had eight catches for 102 yards, his 28th 100-yard receiving day in his career to set the franchise record. Dockett, disruptive all game long, played arguably his best of the season.
The Cardinals, however, are two games behind the 49ers in the NFC West after San Francisco made an impressive rally in Philadelphia to upset the Eagles. The Cards go back on the road this week to play 0-4 Minnesota, needing to focus on the fixes and trying hard not to have their collective head be down.
"You see the good teams around the league, when the game is close, they are able to find a way to finish," Fitzgerald said. "There is no one else to blame but ourselves."