Quite a few of the Cardinals' problems were beyond their control. Losing safety Antrel Rolle and cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie to early injuries put Arizona in a nearly impossible predicament against Drew Brees and the NFL's highest-scoring offense in 2009.
This was the second week in a row Arizona faced a dynamic quarterback, a reflection of life in the NFC this postseason.
And the atmosphere in the Superdome would have put any offense at a severe disadvantage.
The only way the Cardinals could have kept this game close with Greg Toler at corner and Hamza Abdullah at safety was to control the clock by leaning on a bruising ground game. Inside linebacker Gerald Hayes was already out. Nose tackle Gabe Watson suffered a knee injury.
Trailing 28-14 with 6:48 left before halftime, Arizona needed to attack the Saints' suspect run defense with Tim Hightower and Beanie Wells. Closing the half with a clock-eating touchdown drive was their only chance.
Instead, the Cardinals got cute and it cost them. Facing second-and-6 from their own 32, they spread the field with four wide receivers for only the second time in a 14-play span. Pressure affected quarterback Kurt Warner. A quick flip pass didn't fool Saints defensive end Will Smith. Smith tipped the ball to himself and headed upfield.
Warner took a crushing hit trying to make the tackle. The glassy look in his eyes suggested another concussion. It's a mystery how Warner avoided one. Chest and rib injuries knocked him from the game for the rest of the half. The Cardinals trailed 35-14 by the time Warner recovered enough to reenter the game.
"It just wasn't our day today," Rolle said.
Warner's postseason brilliance makes it tough to criticize any Arizona plan to lean on the quarterback. But the Cardinals' ground game after the first offensive play amounted mostly to cute little inside handoffs from passing formations, not tone-setters with two tight ends like the one that sprung Hightower's 70-yard scoring run on the game's first play.
Warner vs. 5-or-More Pass Rushers
New Orleans sent at least five pass rushers on 12 of Warner's 27 pass plays (44.4 percent) compared to just 21 percent by the Packers last week.
* Warner: 94.8 rating vs 5-or-more rushers in regular season
Hightower had sent a message early. Wells had scored easily on a 4-yard run to cut the deficit to 21-14.
Warner had thrown an interception six plays before Wells' scoring run, a turnover negated only when officials flagged Saints linebacker Scott Shanle for roughing the passer. The Superdome crowd, as loud as any I can recall hearing this season, was giving the Saints' pass-rushers an advantage off the ball.
Arizona passed on five of its first six second-down plays, situations that presented opportunities to slow down the game with Wells and Hightower. The single run was a give-up play on second-and-long. The interception negated by Shanle's penalty came on another second-down throw.
Did the Cardinals do enough to set the tone on the ground?
"I don't have an answer for you on that," Warner said. "We just weren't able to establish much down the stretch to get back in the game."
Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt has had the right answers more often than not. Arizona has improved its record every season under him.
One late-season move had negative consequences Sunday.
Asking receiver Anquan Boldin to play one more series against Green Bay in Week 17 looked bad when Boldin suffered ankle and knee injuries that would prevent him from playing again this season. The decision to leave Boldin on the field in that meaningless game looked even worse when receiver Jerheme Urban -- active only because Boldin could not play -- fumbled following a 28-yard gain on the Cardinals' second possession Saturday.
The turnover was a killer for Arizona.
"You can't do that," Whisenhunt said. "Not in this situation against that team, against that offense."
A stronger commitment to the ground game might have helped Arizona, but it wasn't going to change the eventual outcome. The Saints were just better. Brees, like the Cowboys' Tony Romo, has been too good for postseason success to elude him forever.
"Are the Saints that much better than us?" Darnell Dockett asked. "Today they were, and you have to hand it to them."
The Cardinals needed to force turnovers to win. They had no realistic shot at doing that once Rolle and Rodgers-Cromartie left the game. Rodgers-Cromartie had four interceptions over the last three full games he played before Saturday. Rolle picked off four passes in the Cardinals' first nine games this season, but injuries bothered him down the stretch.
Good health was the difference for Arizona during its Super Bowl run last season.
The 2009 Cardinals ran out of players. They also forgot how to tackle, allowing 90 points in two playoff games, an unacceptable total.
Whisenhunt and the Cardinals must figure out two things this offseason.
They need to determine whether their late-season defensive collapse had more to do with injuries and the opponents they faced or anything related to scheme or front-line personnel. And then they need to convince Warner to return for one more run at a championship.
"I have lots of ideas in my head, but what I need to do now is just get away," Warner said.
When Warner assesses his options, he'll see a team that can go all the way with a few upgrades and better luck with injuries. This was no way for anyone to go out.