Before the Cardinals took the field Christmas evening, quarterback John Skelton told Ken Whisenhunt, "We got one gift left to unwrap," referring to a victory over the team he hated growing up, Dallas Cowboys. He added, "sure enough it took to the last minute, but it happened." Skelton's performance was not great, and, were it not for the fact he did not turn the ball over, would look an awful lot like a stat line for Derek Anderson. He threw for 183 yards and a touchdown, but completed only 11 of 25 passes, good for only a 44 percent clip.
Perhaps the most troubling part of Skelton's performance was his ignoring Larry Fitzgerald. He only threw to him three times the entire game, completing only one. Granted, when the team most needed a play on fourth and 15 in the last drive, he looked to the supestar receiver and connected on a 26-yard play.
Perhaps it was having practiced as the third team quarterback and the chemistry he developed with the reserves, but of Skelton's 11 completed passes, nine of them went to reserve receivers Andre Roberts and Max Komar and fullback Reagan Mauia. In any case, even if Fitzgerald is matched up against Darrelle Revis, three targets for one of the league's best receivers is simply unacceptable.
The offense still struggled to move the ball. Aside from the one 74-yard touchdown to Roberts in the first half and the final drive, little was done. They were 2/11 on third down, had only ten first downs (including a resounding zero in the third quarter) held the ball only 21 minutes and managed only 271 yards of total offense. However, Whisenhunt was quick to praise him in his postgame press conference, saying "he doesn't look much like a rookie."
Earlier in the week, Whisenhunt revealed that much of the playcalling has been handed over to passing game coordinator Mike Miller. It still does not make sense that the team is not running the ball more. Tim Hightower, who has averaged more than five yards a carry this season, was given the ball only six times.
Beanie Wells was called upon late, rushing 11 times for 47 yards. But still, considering the Cardinals were playing with a lead almost the entire game, it would have made sense to have run the ball more than passing. The Cardinals had 21 rushing plays and 26 passing plays.
Another interesting development was the absence of Steve Breaston. In the second half, he stayed on the sideline for many of the two receiver sets the Cards ran while Andre Roberts (who finished with five receptions, 110 yards and a touchdown) played opposite Fitz. Whether this was for Skelton, because of something Roberts has done or something Breaston has not done, or if it is simply a way to continue player development in a season that has been lost is yet to be determined.
Fitz, ever the classy player, responded to questions about only getting one catch. He said, "I really wasn’t too frustrated, honestly. I wish I would have been able to have more impact in the game, but you never know when your number is going to be called."
Had the game not ended the way it did, he may have answered differently because we have learned over the years that he is all about winning above everything else. If the team wins and he contributes little, he will be happy. By the way, with his 26 yards receiving, he passed the 1000-yard mark for the season. At the very least he can find a little personal pride in a disappointing year.
With the two interceptions returned for touchdowns in the first quarter, it brought the team's total for returns for touchdowns to twelve for the season. The NFL record is 13. I would like to note that this is an amazing statistic, but it is mostly about luck. It is not a stat you can count on again.
Additionally, if the team matches or surpasses the league record, it should be noted that two of those returns are touchdowns scored by recovering a teammate's fumble (Levi Brown's TD when Max Hall fumbled against New Orleans and Steve Breaston's score off of a Tim Hightower fumble last week). It seems almost cheap to me to include those returns, but in the end, that is how the league counts them.
Whisenhunt praised the defensive performance, particularly the two early turnovers that "ignited" the team and for holding up in the third quarter when the offense did not record a single first down. To be perfectly honest, the defense was very fortunate.
The two interceptions were not caused by the Cardinals. On the first, Miles Austin fell down and the throw hit DRC instead. The other came after the ball hit Roy Williams in the hands. It should have been a Cowboy completion. On the long touchdown play to Austin, Rashard Johnson did not make a play on the ball when he was in position to do so.
The Arizona defense was also not good at stopping Dallas on third or fourth down. Dallas converted 8/18 third down chances and 2/2 on fourth down, including a touchdown on fourth down.
Once Jon Kitna came out of the game, bringing in Stephen McGee, who previously had zero NFL experience, the Dallas game plan was to run the ball. The Cardinals knew this and still could not stop the running game. The Cowboys rushed 183 yards. As a result, McGee was able to be effective, throwing 11/17 for 111 yards and a TD.
Something we saw for the second week in a row, Arizona featured a four-man defensive line. It was effective early but struggled against the run, as noted. I don't know if this is a change in scheme, but I believe it will increase the effectiveness of Darnell Dockett, who had two first half sacks, by putting him back inside, where he is a much more difficult matchup against guards. As a team, the Cardinals racked up five sacks.
As a result of the 4-3 scheme, O'Brien Schofield did not start as earlier noted he would due to the injury to Joey Porter. He did play and got his first career sack. He stated that he has a goal of getting at least three sacks in the final two games. One down, two to go against San Francisco next week. Schofield and Dan Williams are the only two 2010 draftees for the Cardinals on the roster who have not started.
Jay Feely showed why they were willing to let Neil Rackers go in the offseason. We all know the type of season he has had. He did miss his first field goal attempt from 48 yards, but hit two others from the same distance. And when the game was on the line, he was confident and hit it, something that Rackers was mostly unable to do. Rackers was anything but clutch, while Feely is 1/1 in clutch field goals on the year.
With one final game left in the regular season, there still is something left to play for. The San Francisco 49ers are still in contention for the division. Darnell Dockett has already tweeted that he and the team are rooting for the Rams to win the division since the Cards are out of the race. Considering the bad blood between the Cards and the 49ers, it would be sweet for the team to end their hopes of being the NFC West champs. I am sure that this will be part of their motivation.
If there was any doubt about what is sweeter, winning even when the season has been terrible feels better than losing and knowing that the team will have a better draft pick. There is just something unnatural about hoping that your team loses. In the Cardinals' case, it wasn't as if they were going to be able to land the top pick. They will not be drafting Andrew Luck. As a fan, winning is always more fun than the empty comfort of the draft.