Cardinals running back Edgerrin James grinds out some yards during Sunday's 31-24 loss in New Orleans.
NEW ORLEANS – The Cardinals were close, but that was nothing new this season.
What was new was the realization that the playoff dream was now dead, if not officially at least in spirit. That the Cards knew going into Sunday's game against the Saints, a point simply emphasized in a 31-24 loss at the Louisiana Superdome.
"Yeah, we were close," linebacker Gerald Hayes said. "But finishing second is close. It is never good enough."
The Saints (7-7) gave their own playoffs hopes life, an impressive turn given New Orleans' ugly 0-4 start to the season.
The Cardinals (6-8), meanwhile, still have a chance to finish .500 if they can take their final two games, both of which will be at University of Phoenix Stadium. And the steady theme coming out of the locker room after Sunday's game was one of optimism.
"I really believe we are on the right track," coach Ken Whisenhunt said.
Ultimately, though, the Cardinals will have to find a way to turn "close" into "just enough."
It didn't help to be facing one of the hottest quarterbacks in the NFL in Drew Brees, who surgically cut up the Arizona defense all game. Brees finished 26-of-30 passing for 315 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions.
The Cardinals, though, had gotten the ball out of Brees' hands long enough to have a shot.
Trailing 31-24 with less than eight minutes left, the Saints were again marching down the field when Brees hit David Patten for a 26-yard catch-and run into Arizona territory. But backup cornerback Ralph Brown managed to force a Patten fumble, and Calvin Pace recovered the ball at the Arizona 39.
But the Cards went nowhere, with a negative-three yard run by Edgerrin James sandwiched between two incomplete passes. Brees got the ball back with 5:54 left at his own 4, leading the Saints to four first downs – including a key 22-yard pass to tight end Billy Miller on third-and-4 – and eventually running out the clock.
Besides Brees' nearly-perfect day, third-string Saints running back Aaron Stecker ran for 95 yards on 22 carries. New Orleans ended up with 421 yards of total offense.
"You see it every year when teams make it into the playoffs, and there is a five- or six-seed that had to rattle off a couple in a row to get there," Brees said. "It gives you an edge. It makes you weather-tested."
The Saints, who had given up an NFL-low 11 sacks coming into the game, allowed just one – on a Hayes blitz.
"We didn't slow them down defensively," Whisenhunt said.
The Cardinals thought they could move the ball and they did. James had a solid day running the ball (84 yards on only 16 carries) while quarterback Kurt Warner was very good again (19-for-30, 233 yards, three touchdowns, one interception).
The Cards also got an inspiring return from a toe injury by receiver Anquan Boldin, who led the team in catches (six) and yards (83).
But the Cards again lamented missed opportunities. Trailing by 10 early in the fourth quarter with a third-and-3 on the Saints 6, the Cards called a reverse to receiver Steve Breaston, who looked like he should get into the end zone. Instead, Saints cornerback Mike McKenzie broke up the play by avoiding a couple of blockers.
The Cards settled for the field goal, and Whisenhunt was left to lament another situation where the play simply wasn't made.
That will be the top priority for the final two games. There are still goals that can be reached, especially for a team that hasn't been .500 since 1998.
"We're not gonna quit," said receiver Larry Fitzgerald, who caught a touchdown in his fifth straight game but was held to two receptions. "You never know how this is going to shake out."
Contact Darren Urban at firstname.lastname@example.org. Posted 12/16/07. Updated 12/16/07.