The Cardinals are done after the regular-season finale for the first time in three years.
Alan Faneca couldn't avoid thinking about it earlier this week, when he drove in for the final practices of the season.
The veteran guard is in his 13th season, and this is only the fourth time in his career he's prepped for the final game knowing for sure there'd be nothing on the other side. The other nine times, the playoffs were already locked, or winning the final game meant his team was in the playoffs.
"It's always weird," Faneca said, "because you're always (usually) playing for something, or there's always next week."
Not now. Not for the Cardinals.
"It's hard," coach Ken Whisenhunt said. "You forget what this is like. Realistically you know you'll go through a season like this if you are in it long enough. We've been spoiled the last couple of years, I've been spoiled the last decade in this league as many playoff games I have been to. This is tough. It definitely motivates you not to have it happen again."
Players aren't done with each other yet. There is Sunday's game in San Francisco, and the wrap-up meetings come Monday morning. But Friday still brought with it a sense of finality.
"It is difficult," wide receiver Steve Breaston said. "The high expectations we had and being in the playoffs, it is difficult. Now we just have San Fran, and they contributed to the difficult times. We want to end on a high note.
"It's one game and we don't know what's going to happen next year (with the lockout). So you really play it like it's your last."
Whisenhunt said he'll still watch the playoffs – "I'm a football fan," he said – but that won't take the sting of the season being over. There will be work to do, but not the kind of work for which Whisenhunt had been hoping.
"I have no idea what will be going on," Whisenhunt said. "It will be a different, boring life."
RETURNING FOR A RECORD?
Thanks to the pair of interception returns for touchdowns by cornerbacks Greg Toler and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie against the Cowboys, the Cardinals now have 12 return scores this season, one shy of the NFL record Seattle set in 1998.
A return can come in many forms – the Cards have proven that – with scores from special teams, defense, and even a fumbled possession recovered by a teammate (which the Cards have amazingly done three times this season).
"Records and all those types of achievements, they just come," Toler said. "But it's always good to set a milestone and bring it to Arizona. It'd be a big way to finish, along with a win."
Toler enjoyed his 66-yard return. He hadn't scored a touchdown since college two years ago.
"Last year I didn't play much and this year I didn't get my hands on the ball as much as I wanted to, but when I got it, it was good," Toler said. "It gives you confidence you still got it."
Interim 49ers head coach Jim Tomsula has been the San Francisco defensive line coach all season before head coach Mike Singletary was fired last Sunday night and Tomsula was promoted. So this week, when asked about the 49ers' season-long issues with the offense, Tomsula declined to talk about it.
"What I've found is I keep my spoon in my soup," Tomsula said. "When I'm the defensive line coach, all my energy and everything I'm about goes in with the defensive line and that's where my eyes stay. … For me to have any kind of comment on an overall evaluation of other positions before this week, I think number one would be ill-advised and number two would be bad. I think I would be wrong to do that."
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