Wide receiver Michael Floyd loses a fumble after a catch during Sunday's 29-18 loss to the Falcons.
ATLANTA – The Cardinals have spent the season in first place and they haven't left there yet.
But after repeating over and over all week that good teams don't lose two in a row, the Cards ended up doing that Sunday, falling to the Falcons, 29-18, in a disappointing performance all the way around at the Georgia Dome. Their lead in the NFC West has shrunk to one game, and the schedule doesn't let up.
The margin for error has disappeared, and the Cardinals know it.
"We're going to find out about the 2014 Cardinals this week," linebacker Larry Foote said. "Adversity is here. I'm kind of excited to see what type of team we've got. Our story is still being written.
"She's here. Miss Adversity. I'm excited to see how we respond. I'm excited to see we are in the meetings (Monday). See in guys' eyes, if we're ready."
With a 9-3 record, the Cards still lead the NFC West for a game and have a home game on deck. The
Kansas City Chiefs are fighting for a playoff spot themselves, however, and it precedes a short week before a St. Louis road trip.
It won't matter anyway who the opponent is if the Cardinals can't find their way out of the funk that has plagued the offense or the slow start every facet of the game put on display Sunday.
"We're very disappointed in the way we played today," coach Bruce Arians said. "I can't really describe why. Each man has to look in the mirror."
The Falcons (5-7) were battling to stay in first place in the woeful NFC South and played like it right away. But they were up, 17-0 after just nine minutes, a stunning hole from which the Cardinals could never climb from.
Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan did throw an interception to Ryan killer Rashad Johnson, and Johnson returned it 88 yards for a touchdown and brief hope of a comeback. The Cardinals did pull within 17-10 late in the first half.
But the Falcons managed to get a field goal right before halftime – and came close to getting a touchdown – and only a late Stepfan Taylor touchdown catch from Drew Stanton came from the struggling offense.
It was the first Cardinals' touchdown drive since the first quarter of the Detroit game, a span of nearly 11 quarters and 29 offensive possessions. Running back Andre Ellington left the game with a hip pointer, helping lead to another hard day running the ball (35 yards as a team, on 11 attempts).
"We have to be better on third downs and stay on the field," said Stanton, who finished 24-of-39 for 294 yards, the one touchdown and two interceptions. "It's a matter of us executing."
"I am very confident. This team is still in a good position. We've got to find a way to fix third down and put up points."
The Cardinals converted only one of seven third downs Sunday.
But the defense had its problems all day too. Julio Jones beat up cornerback Patrick Peterson for a career-high 189 yards on 10 catches and a touchdown, in a highlighted matchup that ended very one-sided.
"I put this loss on my shoulders," Peterson said, although there was clearly enough blame to go around.
Fellow wide receiver Harry Douglas had nine catches for 116 yards himself. The ancient Steven Jackson rushed for 101 yards on 18 carries, the first back to rush for 100 yards against the Cardinals since Frank Gore did it 21 games ago. That included a stunning 55-yard run on the Falcons' first drive to set up the first touchdown and set a tone no Cardinal saw coming.
Ryan finished with 30 completions on just 41 attempts for 361 yards.
"For whatever reason, we didn't go out and have enough 'oompf' to go out and not let it happen," Johnson said. "And then when it happens, we didn't wake up.
"Every game is important, but especially after losing this game today, it's critical we win at home."
The Cardinals are still fighting adversity that goes beyond the scoreboard. Starting left guard Paul Fanaika went down with a high ankle sprain. Ellington left the game, and safety Tyrann Mathieu broke his left thumb.
Arians wasn't hearing any of that, however, and neither were the Cardinals. Those kind of setbacks hadn't derailed them earlier in the season and no one wants to hear about it now, including Arians.
"That's the message in the locker room," Arians said. "When you are looking for answers, look in the mirror. Don't look anywhere else. And don't lie to yourself."
Images from the Cardinals-Falcons game on Sunday in the Georgia Dome