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The Cards' Special Game

Stephens-Howling's return, muffed punts, field-goal miss make for interesting win


LaRod Stephens-Howling breaks upfield during his 102-yard kickoff return for a touchdown Sunday in the Cardinals' victory over the Raiders.

The day opened with LaRod Stephens-Howling grabbing the opening kickoff and running it back 102 yards for a touchdown.

Then there were the two punt returns that instead were punt disasters, when rookie return man Andre Roberts was unable to get to short kicks and the ball bounced into unsuspecting Cardinals twice – with the Oakland Raiders falling in the ball both times for crucial turnovers.

Finally, there was the field-goal rush that, on the surface, didn't look like it influenced the final 32-yard field-goal miss by Raiders kicker Sebastian Janikowski – but it turned out to be the most special special-teams play of all.!

"Spenc isn't going to be happy but he'll be happy at the same time," Stephens-Howling said about Cardinals' special teams coach Kevin Spencer, following the Cards' 24-23 victory Sunday.

The game will be analyzed every which way for the next week, as every game. There will be talk about the defense and some bend-but-not-break play. There will of course be talk about quarterback Derek Anderson and the search for consistency.

Yet there is a reason coach Ken Whisenhunt was so disappointed Stephen-Howling's kickoff return for a TD was called back early in the Atlanta game, knowing it changed the complexion drastically. And what it meant for the Cards against the Raiders.

First, it meant a new house from Lennar Homes for a guy named Dave Johnson of Surprise, thanks to a promotion for home games. It also meant the home crowd, many of whom were still smarting from seeing the Cards' blowout loss the week before in Atlanta, got into it early.

"I don't know what the statistic is – and you wouldn't tell it by our game – but I think the win percentages are pretty high when you return a kick for a touchdown," Whisenhunt said.

In a perfect world, it would have been the opening chapter of the Cards' very own romp.

The best laid plans, however …

A more went into the "twists and turns" Whisenhunt sweated through the entire day than just special teams examples, but they were hard to ignore.

Seeing a punt hit the ground and accidently hit a blocker for the receiving team – leading to a turnover – happens often enough. But twice in one game? The first was Matt Ware in the first quarter, trading a defensive stop with the Raiders punting from their own 5-yard line and recovering on the Arizona 28. That lead to a field goal.

The second came in the fourth quarter, after the Cards had forced a punt at the Raiders' 27, and the ball hit Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. The Raiders got it on the Arizona 16 and eventually kicked another field goal.

How much of that had to do with overestimating the leg of stud Raiders punter Shane Lechler (the punts still carried 55 and 45 yards) and how much had to do with Roberts' inexperience will have to be seen after watching tape.

It wasn't pretty though, and exactly how do you fix it?

"Better luck, I guess?" Ware said. "It's a chance thing, you know? It's crazy."

Then again, not as crazy as the way it ended. When Rodgers-Cromartie was flagged for the final pass interference that seemingly set up a devastating final field goal at the end of the game, the Cardinals didn't seem to want to accept it.

So they didn't. Somehow, they were right.

"To be in on that last play and to hear guys talk about, you know, let's shock everybody with this one play," defensive tackle Darnell Dockett said. "You look across the line, you could see it in everybody's eyes. I honestly felt, and I'm not just saying this, I honestly felt we were going to block the kick or they were going to miss it."

It was a wild way to run a record to 2-1. Isn't that special?

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