PITTSBURGH - The big games — important games — simply don’t happen often for the Arizona Cardinals.
But the difference between a 4-5 record and a 3-6 record in today’s parity-driven NFL is monumental.
That’s what gave Sunday’s meeting at Heinz Field against the reeling Steelers its weight. It’s also what made the 28-15 implosion such a disappointment.
“It’s a huge missed opportunity,” fullback James Hodgins said. “When you look back at the end of the year, this game, the Detroit (loss), where we were in control of the game, moving the ball, and then all of sudden we’re down by a lot of points.
“I thought as a team we had moved past putting ourselves in those positions. We self-destructed again.”
It took less than three minutes — 2:51, to be exact — for the Cardinals to lose what they had gained from their modest two-game winning streak. That was the time it took the Steelers to increase a 7-3 halftime lead to 21-3.
So it didn’t matter that by the time it was over the Cardinals outgained Pittsburgh by 133 yards or possessed the ball for an extra 7 1/2 minutes. The Steelers, just 3-6 themselves after breaking a five-game losing streak, were talking playoffs after the game. The Cardinals were trying to avoid thinking of the game as a death sentence.
“The season is not done for because we are 3-6,” defensive tackle Marcus Bell said. “Just like when we win no one has a parade, we can’t dwell on this too long.”
But the facts facing the Cards remain ugly.
Arizona has now lost nine straight road games and have given up an average of 36 points a game during the streak. The Cards still have three of their next four games away from home, including their next game at Cleveland.
The scenario didn’t look so depressing through most of the first half Sunday while the Cards played field position. Even though they only got a field goal out of a fumble recovery at the Pittsburgh 17-yard line late in the first half, the Cardinals were content to trail only 7-3 at the half.
“The game was setting up how we want them to set up,” center Pete Kendall said.
Then the game disintegrated right from the second half kickoff.
Justin Lucas was called for an illegal block on the return, giving the Cards the ball at their own 9. Quarterback Jeff Blake was sacked on third down, forcing Scott Player to punt from the back of his end zone. A poor punt gave the ball to the Steelers at the Arizona 27, and a pass interference call on cornerback Renaldo Hill put the ball at the Arizona 5 after one play. Two plays after that, Tommy Maddox hit Hines Ward for a touchdown.
The Cards had the ball for two offensive plays, the second being Steelers cornerback Deshea Townsend’s sack and forced fumble of Blake. The Steelers recovered at the Arizona 22 and Ward caught another TD pass from Maddox
on the next play.
“That (sequence) flipped the game and flipped our mindset,” Cardinals coach Dave McGinnis said.
Antwaan Randle-El added a 52-yard punt return for a touchdown midway through the quarter on another poor Player punt, but by then, the Cardinals were in trouble anyway.
Blake (307 yards, two touchdowns) and receiver Anquan Boldin (eight catches, 118 yards) piled up statistics. But, said running back Marcel Shipp, “It was too late at that point. We put ourselves too much in a hole.”
Shipp’s streak of 100-yard games was stopped with only 63 yards on 22 carries. The Cardinals were a pitiful 3-of-16 on third down conversions. Yet it still might have been interesting had Bryant Johnson’s controversial catch at the goal line on fourth-and-goal from the 5 counted with more than 10 minutes remaining and the Cards down, 28-9.
Johnson was initially ruled out of the end zone. When McGinnis challenged the call to instant replay, referee Jeff Triplett said Johnson had indeed caught a touchdown pass — but also called Johnson for a penalty for going out of bounds prior to catching the ball.
The irate Cardinals got a second chance from the Pittsburgh 10. Blake was sacked.
“We had the opportunity to score at least three more touchdowns,” Blake said. “We scored one they didn’t give it to us and then we were stopped twice.
“I’m proud of the guys for not quitting, though.”