Wide receiver Early Doucet reacts to the fourth-quarter touchdown he couldn't quite grab that would have tied the game in a 23-16 loss.
CINCINNATI – The miracle wouldn't come this time, not on Christmas Eve, not the way the Cardinals had been manufacturing thrillers the past six weeks.
Instead, Early Doucet's feet got tangled in the end zone and the Cardinals' best hope at stunning an opponent vanished in a 23-16 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium, instead exposing the main reason the team has had to come up with so many comebacks in the first place.
There were the requisite nods to pride and fight in the locker room afterward, but in the end, the Cardinals couldn't do anything offensively for three quarters, a familiar path that finally came home to haunt.
"We definitely dug ourselves too big a hole," wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald said. "The first three quarters were forgettable, to say the least."
The Cardinals (7-8) officially saw their postseason hopes, dim as they were, disappear, a four-game winning streak snapped. Rookie cornerback Patrick Peterson won't get a chance to break in punt return records; he strained his Achilles and while rest will repair it, it will mean Peterson probably won't play in the season finale.
Coach Ken Whisenhunt acknowledged some will talk about a long road trip East and an early start – Peterson said in the first half "it seemed we were still in Arizona" – but he said he thought it was more an issue of failure to make plays.
Given that the Cards, especially offensively, have been doing that for weeks, it's a fair point.
With Kevin Kolb still suffering from concussion symptoms – his availability for the finale seems in doubt at this point – John Skelton got the start. Skelton was terrible for three quarters as the Cardinals failed to cross midfield and trailed, 23-0. Then he turned into Super Skelton in the fourth quarter – as usual – and nearly shocked everyone.
Just 8-of-19 for 93 yards, with three interceptions and five sacks, through the first three quarters, Whisenhunt admitted he considered benching Skelton for Rich Bartel. But Skelton completed 15-of-25 passes for 204 yards and two touchdowns in the final quarter – an nearly unbelievably juxtaposition.
He should have had a third TD. On fourth-and-5 from the Cincinnati 17, the Bengals (9-6) brought an all-out blitz. Skelton read the play perfectly, and when the Bengals sent two men to cover Fitzgerald and none to Doucet, Doucet was by himself in the end zone.
He turned to catch the ball, but Skelton – under pressure – threw it like Doucet would keep going. Doucet tripped over his feet trying to adjust, and the ball sailed incomplete.
"Nobody was there," Doucet said. "I can't fall down no matter what. It's a play we needed to win. Whatever happened, I'm not a guy who uses excuses. It's my fault. It's a play I normally make."
Said a weary Whisenhunt, "It's just unfortunate."
It might have been avoidable too had the Cardinals just done something sooner, on both sides of the ball. The defense wasn't nearly as sharp as it had been, at least in the first half, while the Bengals piled up 20 points (and missed two other field-goal attempts). Rookie quarterback Andy Dalton was sharp, throwing a pair of touchdown passes.
One of the touchdowns will live for eternity on highlight shows. Bengals wide receiver Jerome Simpson came open across the field on a blown coverage and raced for a 19-yard score. But the finish was something to behold, when he leaped high – somehow clearing jumping linebacker Daryl Washington – and did a full somersault in the air before sticking the landing.
The Cards also gave up 165 yards rushing, although the Bengals became conservative as the clock moved. The second half changed – the Cards forced a pair of fumbles, and the Bengals only ended up with 301 yards total – and Whisenhunt, while admitting the slow start, said the defense rallied well.
"I think the standard of what we have begun to expect from the defense colors the perception," Whisenhunt said.
The problem is the margin for error the unit doesn't have because the offense takes so long to get going.
"It's frustrating," Skelton said. "For me to throw an interception early kind of deflates us."
Fitzgerald tried to stay lighthearted when talking about the mindset with Skelton – "Let's just get him to the fourth quarter and he'll be fine," Fitzgerald said – but this time, there wasn't enough fourth quarter for Skelton to work enough magic.
Fitzgerald, who had one catch for 13 yards through the first three quarters, ended up with a 100-yard game (six catches for 105 yards). But it wasn't enough, and now the season has an end date, with an offseason that will surely include massive work on a more consistent offense.
"We can't put the defense in that position," guard Daryn Colledge said. "We have shown the ability to do something special. We have to figure out how to do it all the time."