Tight end Stephen Spach runs after the catch during Sunday's 19-12 loss to the Panthers.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. – The Cardinals are not going to be in the "race" for the No. 1 overall draft pick and a chance to pick up quarterback Andrew Luck.
After their visit to Carolina Sunday, it's possible they could cost the Panthers a Lucky opportunity as well.
Coming in with just one win on the season, the Panthers handled the Cards at Bank of America Stadium, dealing Arizona a 19-12 loss that left the Cards – again -- shaking their heads.
"Losses are always tough," safety Kerry Rhodes said. "But we are putting ourselves in position for them."
The Panthers (2-12) didn't do anything spectacular. They ran for 177 yards – Jonathan Stewart racked up 137 of them himself – as they played ball control. The Cards' defense didn't break, giving up just one touchdown, but it couldn't create the turnovers it had in the first start for rookie John Skelton.
This time, the turnovers were needed badly, because offensively, the Cardinals (4-10) stalled far too often. The running game produced just 43 yards, Skelton missed too many plays, and again, the Cards had a few drops that proved killer.
Jump-starting the offense was important enough that coach Ken Whisenhunt called for an onside kick to start the second half, and the Cards trailing, 13-3. It was a good call, except for the try by kicker Jay Feely slowed to a stop about two yards short of the necessary 10, the microcosm of the Cards' afternoon.
"There were just too many mistakes," Whisenhunt said. "I think our guys were fighting."
After awhile, it felt like they were fighting themselves.
"If we make the plays we're supposed to make, we'd be fine," receiver Steve Breaston said. "It's all about consistency. We don't have that right now."
Skelton finished 17-of-33 for 196 yards. But he fumbled the ball away on one sack and airmailed an interception when he tried to force a pass to tight end Stephen Spach, turnovers he had avoided in his first start.
Whisenhunt and Skelton both said the QB had some trouble with his reads – either missing open receivers, or throwing at the wrong time. That hurt especially since the Cardinals may have done their best job of the season making sure they were in manageable third-down situations, leading to another 4-for-15 conversion rate.
"We left a lot of plays on the field like we have in weeks past," Skelton said. "(My reads) are coming along but I'm still a long way from where I want to be."
Skelton did manage to connect with Larry Fitzgerald for nine receptions (in 10 targets) for 125 yards, although Fitzgerald called the statistics "skewed" because the Cards were throwing after falling behind.
The Cards' lone touchdown even came in a backwards way, when Tim Hightower fumbled the ball forward running with a screen pass. Luckily, Breaston was there to fall on the ball in the end zone, extending the Cards' franchise record for return touchdowns this season to 10.
The Panthers' running game also cost the Cards a passing TD against – safety Adrian Wilson bit on a play fake with Stewart rumbling most downs, allowing tight end Jeff King to escape wide open on the other side of the field for a 16-yard score.
The Cardinals did have a small chance late, after Feely booted a field goal with a minute left in the game to pull within seven. But the Panthers jumped on his second onside attempt as well, not that it would have mattered, since the Cards were offside.
Now the Cardinals have a short week before hosting Dallas on Christmas night in the home finale. Draft order it the only thing left to decide. The Cards are dealing with that reality.
"We're frustrated," linebacker Daryl Washington said. "Obviously we're not going to the playoffs and it's just frustrating. But we're trying to stick together."
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