Receiver Larry Fitzgerald can't haul in a pass during the Cardinals' 20-16 loss to the 49ers Sunday at University of Phoenix Stadium.
Their NFC Championship banner was unfurled before Sunday's game, but all along, the Cardinals had insisted they had moved on from their memorable 2008 season.
If they wanted tangible proof, it was the game played soon after the banner showed.
The offense followed its own lead of the preseason by remaining out of sync, penalties came too often, and the Cards were left with a disappointing 20-16 loss to San Francisco at University of Phoenix Stadium.
It was a double blow, with the Cards counting on wins on their home field and the 49ers an NFC West rival.
"That's a reality check," defensive end Darnell Dockett said. "Every time we line up, we're going to get the other team's best shot.
"You get knocked down, you've got to get back up. And get back up strong."
The Cardinals went 6-0 within the division a season ago, but a possible repeat is already gone. Defensively, the Cards did what was promised, allowing just 203 yards and holding star 49ers running back Frank Gore to just 30 yards rushing on 22 carries.
But in a fourth quarter that evolved into a microcosm of the game, the 49ers – trailing for the first time in the game, 16-13 – went on a 15-play, 80-yard touchdown drive to take the lead, converting four third downs. That included the final play, a four-yard touchdown swing pass to Gore in which the Cardinals blew a coverage and left him wide open.
The Cards' offense still had chances, but stalled after a single first down on their initial possession and punted. After a great Ben Graham punt downed at the 49ers 2-yard line, the Cards' defense held, and the offense was presented with a perfect opportunity at the San Francisco 38 with a little over three minutes left.
But tight end Stephen Spach was called for a false start before a snap even happened. A Jerheme Urban dropped pass was wiped out on a Mike Gandy holding call – the Cards' 12th penalty of the game. Stuck in a first-and-25 situation, Warner couldn't get completions on either third or fourth down, ending the Cards' legitimate hopes.
"You can't have penalties, you can't make mistakes and hope to win," coach Ken Whisenhunt said.
Warner struggled all game – finishing 26-for-44 for 288 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions – and admitted the troubles on offense were a continuation of the Cards' preseason issues. Pro Bowl receiver Anquan Boldin did play but was clearly limited with his sore hamstring and was never a factor. Fellow Pro Bowler Larry Fitzgerald had six catches for 71 yards and a score, but didn't have a catch until the second quarter was almost over.
"We are a little bit off," Warner said. "It's a lot more work than it should be. It doesn't seem to be as smooth and easy as it has been in the past."
The lone real highlight was the receiving of running back Tim Hightower, who finished with 12 catches for 121 yards. But that was in large part because Warner was feeling heavy pressure and needed to dump the ball off, or the 49ers playing deep to take the Cards' downfield game away.
The problems took away from the effort the defense made, although some of the good feeling was lost when the 49ers maneuvered down the field for the game-winning touchdown. Not only did San Francisco manage to gain almost half their yards on the single possession, a chance for the Cards to hold the 49ers to a game-tying field goal was lost in a miscommunication.
Cornerback Ralph Brown had come in the game for safety Matt Ware, meaning Antrel Rolle was playing safety instead of cornerback. Safety Adrian Wilson said that change was lost, and he said he blew the coverage on Gore.
When asked if he should have been on Gore's side, Wilson added, "I should've done a lot of things today. I take full responsibility for it."
Whatever the reason, the Cards couldn't overcome the deficit again, as they had done earlier when they were down 13-3, even if the 49ers lost much of the statistical battle.
"It was an ugly game, but it was beautiful for us," 49ers coach Mike Singletary said.
Eliminating mistakes will be another topic of conversation. The Cardinals are faced with a difficult situation, heading to Jacksonville for a long road trip next weekend with the knowledge an 0-2 start could be crushing.
"(With) the leaders on this team, I think it's important once again to have another pow-wow," Wilson said. "We have been around long enough and played together long enough to know what it takes."
It's definitely not 2008 anymore.
"What do I think?" linebacker Karlos Dansby asked rhetorically. "I think we're going to try and go 15-1. What else can you think?"
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