Patrick Peterson drinks in the crowd's cheers after his 99-yard punt return Sunday won the game for the Cardinals in overtime, 19-13.
Patrick Peterson streaked down the sideline, right in front of the Cardinals' bench, and by the time he reached the end zone, it looked like the entire roster had been on the field blocking for his game-winning punt return Sunday.
They certainly were all in the end zone, celebrating around their rookie at University of Phoenix Stadium.
It covered 99 yards, Peterson's latest amazing play, and covered six games of losing frustration. The Cards had an overtime win, 19-13, over the St. Louis Rams and the euphoria was obvious. Peterson said in the aftermath, coach Ken Whisenhunt came up to him and said, "I love you."
Peterson smiled, recounting the moment. "I said, 'Coach, I love you too."
Said Whisenhunt with his own smile, "He's my new son."
Why wouldn't the love flow, with a six-game losing streak ending on the back of Peterson. It was Peterson's third punt return for a touchdown in just eight NFL games, already tying the franchise career record. An 89- and 82-yarder were his previous two, so the only way to top it was to take one back inches from his own goal line.
"I knew it was gutsy," Peterson said.
Whisenhunt noted his return men "have rules" when it comes to not fielding the ball inside the 10-yard line. But in the case at the end of the game Sunday, "I'm going to say, 'Thanks for doing it Patrick. Thanks for going against the rule on that one.' "
The win was improbable, more than just because of Peterson's unlikely play. The Rams should have won on the last play of regulation, except Calais Campbell blocked Josh Brown's 42-yard field goal attempt. The Cards had floundered on offense, gaining just 58 yards in the first half behind backup quarterback John Skelton, playing because Kevin Kolb had a turf toe injury. And in the third quarter, Skelton and the Cards gave the Rams (1-7) four points on stunningly rare back-to-back safeties.
"In a game where there is nothing but field goals," Skelton admitted, "you don't want to give up any points. But our defense did a great job bailing me out."
Rams running back Steven Jackson did have 130 yards rushing, but the Cardinals made sure the Rams never reached the end zone.
Skelton (20-of-35, 222 yards, no turnovers) responded in the fourth quarter, however leading the Cardinals on a 79-yard touchdown drive, finally finding Larry Fitzgerald in the end zone to tie the game at 13. When the defense held yet again – stuffing the Rams on third-and-1 and fourth-and-1 at the Arizona 33 with 1:48 left – the Cards had the ball back with a chance to win.
Why Rams coach Steve Spagnuolo didn't want to try a field goal there was mysterious, given the talents of kicker Josh Brown (Whisenhunt said he was surprised, Spagnuolo said "in hindsight, maybe it was a bad decision."). It almost didn't matter, because Skelton's attempt for his own game-winning drive featured a 16-yard loss on a sack and the need to punt the ball back to the Rams.
Quarterback Sam Bradford took it from his own 36-yard line to the Cards' 24 quickly. Brown came out to boot a game-winning 42-yard field goal. The way things had gone for the Cards – for instance, just the week before in Baltimore, when the game ended on a field goal to beat them – it could have been a chip shot.
Then the 6-foot-8 Campbell leaped to save the day, with the fourth blocked field goal of his career.
"I was hoping for it, praying for it," Campbell said.
The Rams won the overtime toss, but were forced to punt. When the ball floated down to Peterson at his own 1 and he decided to run it back rather than let it bounce into the end zone, no one blinked.
"I decided to catch the ball," Peterson said, "and then run for my life."
Asked if he was surprised teams still punted to him, Peterson didn't miss a beat – and he answered matter-of-factly: "That I am." Then again, who would field a punt inside his own 5 – especially after his team had already taken two safeties in the game?
Just the man who was about to run back the second-longest punt return in NFL history (the Rams' Robert Bailey had one for 103 yards in 1994) and let the other team suffer the close, heartbreaking loss for once.
"They're calling (Peterson) special, but he is something else," Cardinals wide receiver Andre Roberts said. "I don't know what it is, but it's something more than special."