Quarterback Ryan Lindley (14) scrambles away from pressure during the Cardinals' 20-17 loss to the 49ers Sunday.
SANTA CLARA, Calif. – There were things the Cardinals learned Sunday in their regular-season finale against the 49ers.
Some were obvious. With the Seahawks beating the Rams, the Cardinals' 20-17 loss at Levi's Stadium was meaningless. The Cards (11-5) were locked into the fifth seed of the NFC, and must travel to NFC South champion Carolina (7-8-1) after the Panthers beat up the Falcons in Atlanta.
Others were a bit more of a surprise. Those concerns about Ryan Lindley as quarterback were softened as Lindley had his best game in the NFL, one that was ultimately dotted with too many interceptions but also with his first two career touchdown passes. If Drew Stanton can't play against the Panthers – coach Bruce Arians said the Cards remain hopeful Stanton can practice this week – there is a feeling they can manage with Lindley.
But the other surprise was a defense that for a second straight game got gouged by the run and was unable to force a turnover. The defense is the big reason the Cardinals won 11 games. The unit must
be more productive to make the postseason last more than one game.
Turn the page, Arians told his team after the game. The playoffs are here.
The Panthers game will kick off at 2:35 p.m. Arizona time Saturday on ESPN.
"We're looking at it as a fresh start," safety Tyrann Mathieu said. "But we also have to be mindful of our last two games. There's a lot we can learn from."
If the Cardinals would have been told ahead of time Lindley would throw a couple of touchdown passes, they likely would have liked their chances. Lindley went 229 NFL passes without a touchdown before finding wide receiver Michael Floyd on a 20-yard scoring strike via a Marion Grice flea-flicker to open the scoring.
Later, Lindley found Floyd again for a 41-yard touchdown right before halftime, as he marched the Cards
75 yards on only four plays with 58 seconds left on the clock.
"I thought Ryan played well enough for us to win the game," Arians said.
Floyd, who had eight catches for 153 yards, was spectacular in his best game of the season, and like his teammates, insisted they've always believed in Lindley.
"I wasn't concerned at all," Floyd said. "We have the ultimate confidence in Lindley that he can get the job done."
Lindley finished 23 of 39 for 316 yards. But his three interceptions were painful – his first cost the Cardinals a field-goal attempt. The second the 49ers turned around into a touchdown drive, albeit a long one and one that was only extended when defensive tackle Tommy Kelly was called for an five-yard illegal hands to the face and automatic first down on third-and-goal from the Arizona 24.
"I felt the most comfortable I've felt since I've been in the NFL, but there are still ample plays that kill you," said Lindley, whose third pick came in the last two minutes. "I am always super hard on myself but (the picks) were all kind of bonehead plays."
Yet, Lindley acknowledged, "I feel night and day. It's a loss and no one likes to lose, but we gained some confidence."
The Cardinals did have good pass protection for the most part and ran the ball much better than they did against Seattle – with 98 yards on 25 carries, along with a commitment to do so. But the 49ers piled up 206 yards rushing – Frank Gore had 144, and quarterback Colin Kaepernick scrambled for 63 more.
San Francisco averaged 6.2 yards a rush.
"We tackled poorly again today," said Arians, who acknowledged it didn't help to be missing injured inside linebacker Larry Foote. "It only takes one guy in a gap to miss a tackle and it's going to be a squirter. With Carolina and their rushing attack, it's going to be a challenge for us again."
Mathieu said he thinks the defense just needs to play with more of an attitude, not being satisfied with just being in the playoffs.
"We'll be fine," defensive end Calais Campbell said. "I'm not worried at all."
The Cardinals could be worse off. The 49ers (8-8) officially cut ties with coach Jim Harbaugh after the game – Harbaugh, who had taken the 49ers to three straight NFC title games before this season, could be bound for the University of Michigan – and are looking for a new coach.
The Cards have a coach in Arians who, despite a season-ending two-game losing streak, is the heavy favorite for Coach of the Year. They have a defense that has proven it can play well enough to shut teams down. They look like they have found a quarterback in Lindley who can serve their purpose if Stanton cannot return.
"I told them, 'I don't want anybody moping on the plane,' " Arians said. "It's zero-zero, and we're in the tournament.
"We don't plan on being one-and-done."