NEW ORLEANS – They were two plays in a game with dozens of them, and the Cardinals' failure to convert an inches-to-go situation on both third and fourth down in a four-point game felt like a turning point Sunday.
But, Larry Fitzgerald noted, "no one individual play changes the outcome of a game," and what the Cardinals got Sunday during a 31-9 loss to the New Orleans Saints felt more big-picture than a single missed opportunity.
"You can play the what-if game all day," the wide receiver said. "We got beat, and we've got to put it out of our minds."
The Cardinals (3-4-1) had their three-game winning streak snapped, all the while seeing just how much they still must learn, including rookie quarterback Kyler Murray. They also saw what a quarterback who is already grown can look like even after missing more than a month, with Drew Brees playing as if he never hurt his thumb.
"We are growing," linebacker Jordan Hicks said. "But what you can't do in this league, especially on a short week, is let one (poor) game turn into two games. After a game like this, you have to get rid of it."
The Cardinals host the undefeated 49ers Thursday. They may do so not only without starting running back David Johnson, who missed Sunday's game with an ankle injury and an ESPN report said he'd miss the 49ers game as well (coach Kliff Kingsbury would not say that, reiterating Johnson was day-to-day), but also top backup Chase Edmonds, who hurt his hamstring to cap a miserable day of 8 yards rushing on seven carries.
"I'll do the best I can (to return) on a short week," Edmonds said. "I'm hopeful."
If Edmonds can't play, the Cards would be down to Alfred Morris and Zach Zenner – both of whom signed last week – as their running backs. Morris was inactive Sunday.
Perhaps Kingsbury and the Cardinals would feel better about that situation had the rest of things gone better against the Saints (7-1). Perhaps it would've been better had they gotten that first down in the third quarter.
Cornerback Patrick Peterson had gotten his first interception of the season to short-circuit a Saints drive, one of the few mistakes of the day by Brees.
Trailing 10-6, Murray's play-action rollout was defended perfectly by the Saints, with defensive end Cam Jordan getting between he and Edmonds to force and awkward throw and incompletion. On fourth down, Edmonds' try into the line went nowhere, and the Saints got it on the Arizona 30.
"I've got to find a way to get that yard," Edmonds said.
The Saints scored a touchdown on a 15-yard pass from Brees to running back Latavius Murray five plays later. The Cardinals later cut the lead back to seven with a field goal, but the game felt like it had changed for good.
"It was loud and we were trying to communicate across and it got messed up," guard Justin Pugh said. "I just know I got blown up and didn't do my job on that play. One of 11 not doing their job on the biggest play of the game is definitely not a good thing."
Kingsbury said with "analytics, plus myself, I was all for" going for it.
"We felt like at that point, after getting the turnover, we had to make something happen," Kingsbury added.
Brees finished the game completing 34-of-43 passes for 373 yards and three touchdowns, without being sacked. Michael Thomas had 11 catches for 112 yards and a score, and Latavius Murray had 102 yards rushing and another 55 yards on nine catches.
"He's a Hall of Fame-caliber quarterback, so what else do you expect?" linebacker Jordan Hicks said. "You've got to play honest, disciplined defense against that scheme. We had a really good plan, but … we had opportunities, we didn't execute as we needed to."
Kyler Murray completed 19-of-33 passes for 220 yards, and did it without a turnover again. But there were ones he wanted back – on one fantastic play in which he spun to elude a rusher, he had Christian Kirk on a broken play some 40 yards downfield, only to underthrow the pass. Murray did throw a nice fade to Fitzgerald in the end zone in the first half for a near score, but Fitzgerald couldn't quite get his second foot down.
The Cards settled for a field goal. It was the first time this season the Cards did not score a touchdown in a game.
The Cardinals only converted 2 of 12 third downs, and were 0-for-2 in the red zone. In a game where the Saints got touchdowns, it was a bad ratio.
"For the most part, we moved the ball," Murray said. "We just didn't finish."
Kingsbury again noted Murray took care of the ball, and blamed himself for some bad playcalls in the red zone. But said his quarterback is still showing progress.
"These are great lessons, playing one of the best teams in the league on the road," Kingsbury said. "He'll learn from all of it."
The Cardinals hope to as well, although the timeline – with the 49ers coming Thursday – is tight.
"We've got to be better," Murray said. "And we will."