The Cardinals trudge off the field after the 49ers kicked a field goal on the last play of the game to win, 23-20, in Sunday's season finale.
The message Bruce Arians left his team with when it was over, a heartbreaking but ultimately meaningless 23-20 loss to the San Francisco 49ers at University of Phoenix Stadium, was that the 2013 season was only the beginning.
It certainly feels that way, at least now before the churn of free agency and inevitable offseason change takes hold. The Cardinals won 10 games for only the second time since the franchise moved to Arizona, and while the Saints battering of the Buccaneers at the same time took the playoffs quickly out of play, the Cards still think they would have been a tough out in the postseason.
"As much as this stinks to have this feeling right now," quarterback Carson Palmer said, "I am very excited about the future, about the guys, and the guys we will hopefully try to keep. We are starting something special."
The Cardinals wanted that 11th win, Saints outcome be damned, but were whacked by the 49ers (12-4) to the tune of a 17-0 San Francisco lead after a quarter. Yet it came down to the end, tying the game at 20 with 29 seconds left only to see the 49ers respond with a drive of their own and allow Phil Dawson's 40-yard field goal to win it at the gun.
They made it hard on themselves again against San Francisco, which has now beaten the
Cardinals in nine of the last 10 meetings. The Cards lost the turnover battle, 2-0, and have turned the ball over 30 times (forcing just seven) in those 10 meetings against the 49ers.
"We couldn't have played any worse in the first half," wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald said. "We couldn't have."
Former Cardinals Anquan Boldin did a number on his first NFL team, catching nine passes for 149 yards and a score, but the problems the Cards had in the first meeting weren't anymore. Running back Frank Gore had just 14 yards on 13 carries after getting 101 yards in October, and the Niners rushed for just 83 against the NFL's best run defense. Tight end Vernon Davis, while he had a touchdown, had just three catches for 45 yards.
Slowly the Cards climbed back into it, with Palmer (28-for-49 for 407 yards) rallying from an early interception to throw a pair of touchdown passes. Kicker Jay Feely struggled by missing two makeable field goals – Dawson shanked one himself – but hit the game-tying boot from 43 yards.
Unfortunately, his kickoff only went to the goal line, and only a fantastic Justin Bethel tackle from behind stopped LaMichael James from turning a 45-yard return into a touchdown. A pass to Boldin picked up 18 yards and then rookie Quinton Patton – who had one NFL catch – hauled in a 29-yarder along the sideline over cornerback Antoine Cason to set up the game-winning score.
"I feel like it shows a lot of character after going down 17-0, coming back like that," safety Rashad Johnson said. "That last throw, it was just a great play by their player. We had a great defensive call. Just didn't go our way."
In the moment, the passing game clicked down the stretch. Fitzgerald got his second 100-yard game of the season – both against the 49ers – with six receptions for 113 yards. Michael Floyd had six catches for 91 yards to surpass 1,000 yards on the season. Andre Roberts had a spectacular 34-yard touchdown catch and even tight end Rob Housler bounced back after a drop of a sure touchdown to make five catches for 78 yards. And for all his passes, Palmer was only sacked once.
Adding to the defensive performance this season, and the Cardinals have something with which to build upon.
"I really hate to see this football team's season end because it's been so much fun working with them," Arians said. "No team stays the same in the NFL anymore."
It's hard to know exactly what the Cardinals will look like next season. Already key safety Tyrann Mathieu is undergoing a long rehabilitation after tearing his ACL, and Sunday, nose tackle Alameda Ta'amu – who is an exclusive rights free agent and a certainty to return – likely tore the ACL in his right knee. Hoping to have Ta'amu back by the start of the season is a probable long shot.
Then there are all the free agents to be, like linebackers Karlos Dansby and Matt Shaughnessy, Feely, Roberts, running back Rashard Mendenhall and starting right tackle Eric Winston, among others. There are possible contract adjustments to be sought, with candidates being defensive tackle Darnell Dockett, Fitzgerald and guard Daryn Colledge.
The offseason will not be simple for General Manager Steve Keim, although he won't have to worry about finding a coaching staff this offseason. And Keim knows what works now too. Ten wins shows that.
"I hope the organization does everything in its power to keep as many people on this team as possible," Dockett said. "We have a lot of guys who want to win and a lot of guys who will sacrifice to win. I'm been in this organization for 10 years and there is a great group of guys on this team. I can't speak on other years but this team wants to win and everybody is willing to do what it takes to win.
"Like B.A. said, this is the beginning. This will be one dangerous team next year."