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Saturday, December 25, 2010
Wrap-up: Cardinals 27, Cowboys 26

By Mike Sando

Thoughts on the Arizona Cardinals' performance in a 27-26 win against Dallas in Week 16:

What it means: The Cardinals (5-10) can feel better about some of their young players as the offseason approaches. They still have significant issues to address, of course, but this performance represented a welcome departure from recent form. It was easier to envision rookie quarterback John Skelton in the No. 2 role next season after watching him against Dallas. The fourth-quarter drive Skelton led to the winning 48-yard field goal atoned for long stretches without any offensive production. Arizona played with great energy on defense and finally made a big play in the passing game when Skelton found fellow rookie Andre Roberts for a 74-yard touchdown in the second quarter. Roberts, the new third receiver now that Early Doucet is on injured reserve, had five receptions for 110 yards. One drawback, perhaps, was any ground Arizona lost in 2011 draft positioning.

What I liked: The Cardinals seemed fully engaged in the game and played with purpose on defense. The team used a four-man front with success early. Defensive linemen Darnell Dockett and Calais Campbell made disruptive plays. Cornerbacks Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Greg Toler returned interceptions for touchdowns. The energy was there early even though the Cowboys enjoyed considerable support from fans in attendance. Dockett also caught my attention hustling downfield to block for Rodgers-Cromartie, one of the fastest players in the league. The Cardinals played as though this game meant something to them. Running back Beanie Wells stood out for making an effective block in blitz pickup, enabling Skelton's long scoring strike to Roberts. Skelton's clutch 26-yard strike to Larry Fitzgerald on fourth down helped Arizona move into position for Jay Feely's game-winner.

What I didn't like: Much of the Cardinals' limited success this season has been unsustainable. The Cardinals' two interception returns for touchdowns Saturday gave them 12 return scores this season, one off the NFL record Seattle set in 2003. Arizona became the first team since New England in 1999 to score twice on interception returns in the same first quarter. That's a great note, but not reflective of production a team can rely upon over the long term. The Cardinals beat Oakland in Week 3 only when the Raiders' Sebastian Janikowski missed a 32-yard field-goal try on the last play of the game, his shortest miss since 2006. Against New Orleans in Week 5, Arizona became the second team in NFL history to score at least 30 points without a rushing or passing touchdown. Arizona later beat a Denver team in disarray after the Broncos fired coach Josh McDaniels.

Disappearing wideouts: Arizona held a 21-10 halftime lead despite throwing no passes for Fitzgerald or Steve Breaston. Fitzgerald came into the game against Dallas having caught at least one pass in 100 consecutive games. He made his one and only reception count against the Cowboys.

On their minds: Cardinals defensive backs coach Donnie Henderson went to a hospital for observation after fainting at the stadium before kickoff. The players he coaches came through with big play after big play. Were they inspired? I don't know, but there was recent precedent in the division for a defense making plays after losing its secondary coach unexpectedly. The San Francisco 49ers collected four picks against Seattle in Week 14 after their secondary coach, Johnnie Lynn, resigned abruptly.

Trending: The Cardinals had more problems executing shotgun snaps. A thumb injury affected center Lyle Sendlein in a game against Denver. Skelton appeared unready for the third-down snap that hit the ground against the Cowboys.

Rookie watch: Outside linebacker O'Brien Schofield collected a fourth-quarter sack to force a Cowboys punt. With Joey Porter injured and inactive, Schofield was scheduled to make his first NFL start. He did not because the Cardinals opened the game in a 4-3 defense. A groin injury sidelined Schofield for a stretch against Dallas, but he returned to collect the first sack of his career. Schofield fell to Arizona in the fourth round of the draft while still recovering from the torn ACL he suffered in January 2010.

What's next: The Cardinals finish their season with a game against San Francisco at Candlestick Park. Arizona could have a shot at knocking the 49ers from playoff contention, but only if the 49ers beat the St. Louis Rams on Sunday.