What if, by some long shot, Tampa Bay went into New Orleans and pulled off an upset?
What if the miracle actually happened?
But none of that mattered by time the first quarter expired on Sunday. As they have for most of the season, the Cardinals came out slow and before they blinked, the 49ers built a 17-0 point lead. If anyone expected anything different from the Cardinals after last weekend’s emotional win in Seattle, they haven’t watched this team closely.
For as good as the defense has played all season and for as many times as they had saved games -- like it nearly did in Arizona’s 23-20 loss to the Niners -- Sunday wasn’t going to be any different. It didn’t matter if this was Arizona’s biggest game since Kurt Warner last trotted onto the field at University of Phoenix Stadium in 2009. It didn't matter what was at stake. Arizona looked more like the team that struggled early in games than it did the one that finished the season 7-2.
“When we started slow we focused on what we had [to do],” center Lyle Sendlein said. “We knew coming in we didn’t want to be saying, ‘What if Tampa would’ve won and we didn’t?’ That’s the taste we didn’t want in our mouths. That’s why our drive was strong today.
“We didn’t want that feeling in case it did happen.”
In a stroke of genius, the NFL flexed the New Orleans-Tampa Bay game to begin at the same time as Arizona-San Francisco. That way, neither the Cardinals nor the Niners would be playing with their postseason fate already decided.
It didn’t matter, however. New Orleans smoked Tampa Bay 42-17 and ended Arizona’s season by halftime.
None of the Cardinals said they snuck a look at the Saints-Bucs score. They were only concerned about trying to get themselves back in the game. With the playoffs out of the question, pride was on the line. And around the NFC West, pride and bragging rights are a close second.
“It didn’t matter,” Cardinals coach Bruce Arians said. “This is the only game that mattered at the time.”
What Arizona could’ve done, however, was put themselves in the right position in case the right situation unfolded. But after quarterback Carson Palmer nearly threw an interception on Arizona’s opening drive, the defense was forced to pick up the slack again. It stopped San Francisco on three straight plays from the Cardinals' 8, forcing the Niners to kick a field goal.
On the Cards next drive, Palmer threw his 22nd interception of the season, when he tried to force a pass to Michael Floyd, who was surrounded by about five Niners. San Francisco didn’t waste any time, scoring in six plays to take a 10-0 lead. Arizona needed points on the next drive, but Jay Feely's 37-yard field goal attempt went wide right. The Niners went up 17-0 after a 63-yard pass from Colin Kaepernick to Anquan Boldin set up a 3-yard touchdown pass to Vernon Davis.
“They came out with a game plan, a lot of reverses, a lot of things early in the game to try to keep us off guard from stopping the run because they knew we would be very aggressive, and we were,” Arians said. “Early turnover, missed field goals, we didn’t play very well in the first half, but we kind of shot ourselves in the foot this ball game again.
“But, the no scoring opportunities hurt and [in] tight, tight games, always will.”
But why should Sunday have been any different from the rest of the season?
While the offense was getting its motor running, the Cardinals’ defense went to work. On the Niners’ next eight drives, Arizona forced them to punt six times. San Francisco kicker Phil Dawson missed a field goal after Arizona held from its 3 and then the 6 on three straight plays. Then in the fourth quarter the Cardinals held on a fourth-and-1.
Before San Francisco knew it, Arizona had rattled off 17 straight points to tie the game, the last of which came on a 34-yard touchdown pass from Palmer to Andre Roberts along the left sideline of the end zone. Sound familiar? It looked eerily similar to the touchdown pass Palmer threw to Michael Floyd in Seattle.
By time Dawson gave San Francisco a 20-17 lead with 1:45 left in the game, Arizona knew the playoffs were nothing but a pipe dream. At that point it was all about pride.
While he had missed two field goals earlier in the game, Feely atoned by nailing a 43-yarder with 34 seconds left to tie the game at 23.
But Arizona’s luck this season ran out when the officials ruled LaMichael James was down before the ball popped loose during the ensuing return. Dawson would eventually hit a 40-yard field goal as time expired to give San Francisco the win.
What started as a blowout finished as a nail-biter.
Arizona found itself where it wanted to. In a position to take care of its own business by beating a division rival. But as luck and a field goal would have it, neither happened.
And, as fate -- and the Saints -- had it, neither would’ve mattered.