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The End In San Francisco

Cardinals close "nightmare" season with 38-7 loss to 49ers


Linebacker O'Brien Schofield sacks 49ers quarterback Alex Smith Sunday, one of the few highlights in a 38-7 loss to San Francisco.

SAN FRANCISCO – The weather was dreary and so was the play, fitting for the final game of a Cardinals' season that was exactly that.

From the moment the Cardinals lost starting tight end Stephen Spach to a calf injury before the game even began – forcing the Cards to use guard Rex Hadnot and long snapper Mike Leach as a second tight end -- little went right in Sunday's 31-7 loss to the 49ers at Candlestick Park, bringing to a close a frustrating year.

"You're done but you know football isn't done," running back Tim Hightower said. "Part of you doesn't want to see it go.  But on the other side, the season is over, and it's like when you have a nightmare you just want to wake up from."

The Cardinals (5-11) finish the season in last place in the NFC West. They will pick fifth in the NFL draft – behind Carolina, Denver, Buffalo and Cincinnati.

They will also undoubtedly go through significant change.

Coach Ken Whisenhunt declined to get into the possibility of making changes on his coaching staff, saying "That's not something I'm ready to talk about. I'm still hurting from this game." But those are some of the considerations that will have to be made.

"This division is getting tougher," team president Michael Bidwill said before the game during a radio interview. "We've got to get a lot better to return to our perch at the top of the NFC West, and it's a heck of a lot more fun to play in January than being done."

That work begins immediately too. As frustrating as the year was, Whisenhunt said he has no interest in taking any time to regroup.

"I'm ready to get going and ready to get it fixed," Whisenhunt said.

The first thing the Cardinals need to do is figure out their quarterback situation. The Cards made a switch yet again Sunday, with recently signed Rich Bartel getting a little more than a quarter to show coaches a little of what he could do in relief of rookie John Skelton.

By then, the 49ers (6-10) were already in complete control of the game. The Cardinals were outgained 113 yards to minus-14 in the first quarter, but came around long enough for Skelton to lead a 37-yard touchdown drive capped with a 10-yard touchdown pass to Larry Fitzgerald. It was Fitzgerald's first touchdown since Nov. 21, and it pulled the Cards within 10-7 by halftime.

The third quarter turned to disaster, however, with the 49ers scoring three touchdowns. Bartel came in, although his numbers (16-for-28 for 150 yards and an interception returned for a touchdown) weren't appreciably better than Skelton's (14-for-25, 92, one TD, one interception).

"I felt as comfortable as I could feel," Bartel said. "No excuses."

Said Skelton, "It'll be a lot easier next season (for me) with games under my belt, but no one wants to finish the season like this."

Fitzgerald did close out the season strong, making 11 catches for 125 yards and actually surpassing for the season his 2009 yardage total – an amazing feat considering the quarterback roller-coaster the Cards endured.

None of that really mattered, however, in the big picture of another loss to a division rival, one that had just changed coaches before the game.

San Francisco quarterback Alex Smith looked solid, going deep often and completing 15-of-29 passes for 276 yards and two scores. His 59-yard scoring pass to tight end Vernon Davis started the third-quarter floodgates.

But again, that wasn't a unique situation for the season.

"The thing that pushes you when it's grinding time is you think about this feeling you had, and how sick it made you feel," linebacker Clark Haggans said. "That's the best motivation to have."

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