The tone was set Sunday after three minutes and four pass attempts. Matt Leinart had a two-yard completion, an incompletion that was nearly intercepted and an interception. Jay Cutler had a 54-yard touchdown bomb.
Eventually, Cutler’s Denver Broncos whipped Leinart’s Cardinals, 37-20, in front of 63,845 at University of Phoenix Stadium in the Cards’ home finale, and the play between the rookie quarterbacks was correspondingly wide.
The game wasn’t going to determine which team ended up with the better draft pick, but it was an intriguing subplot for a Cards’ season that has few left — even if the participants denied it.
“That didn’t cross my mind,” Leinart said. “This wasn’t about a Matt vs. Jay contest.”
Said Cutler, “We can’t get all wrapped up in who you are playing against or players on the opposite team.”
The Broncos (8-6) had other concerns, since they were still in the playoff chase while trying to snap a four-game losing streak.
The Cardinals (4-10) had a chance to win a third straight game for the first time since 2002.
Instead, Denver came out, said Cards coach Dennis Green, and “played like they thought 8-6 could get them in the playoffs.”
The Broncos ran the ball 38 times, held Arizona to a lone offensive touchdown and kept Cardinals receivers Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald without a catch into the third quarter.
More importantly, Cutler played well. And for most of the game, Leinart struggled.
Cutler completed 21 of 31 passes for 261 yards, two touchdowns and an interception. Leinart was 20 for 35 for 214 yards and two interceptions, and had just 30 yards passing in the first half.
The Cards’ offense had a miserable start, going three-and-out on its first possession and then — after Cutler’s first pass landed in the hands of Javon Walker for a pretty touchdown over David Macklin and Robert Griffith — Leinart led Boldin a bit too much and Pro Bowl cornerback Champ Bailey stepped in front for the interception.
“The one thing is that the offense is not going to be too complicated for him,” said Bailey, who added a second interception later. “We were able to read some routes and make some plays.”
Green said it was “hard to say” if Leinart was pressing, but the coach also pointed out Leinart was pressured more than in recent games. Leinart was sacked three times, his total for the previous four games combined.
He also suffered from too many dropped passes, the most egregious being Bryant Johnson’s end zone drop with the Cards trailing, 23-10.
Leinart insisted this game was no different, other than going against a talented Broncos defense. His teammates agreed.
“It felt like the same old Matt,” tackle Reggie Wells said. “He was out there battling. ... Different games present different situations. You won’t always have the stats you want.”
The sequence Leinart and the offense wanted back came after Cutler was intercepted by Griffith on the first possession of the third quarter with Denver leading, 16-10. Griffith ran the ball back to the Broncos’ 28-yard line and the Cards were in good shape.
But left tackle Leonard Davis was flagged for a false start, and with Leinart having his passing issues, the Cardinals decided to call three straight running plays that left them four yards short of a first down.
Kicker Neil Rackers booted the 40-yard field goal, but tight end Fred Wakefield was called for holding, and Rackers pushed the 50-yard attempt wide left.
“You can’t do that,” Leinart said.
Not only did the series kill the Cards, it opened up the door for Cutler.
Six plays later, the Broncos had the touchdown that all but clinched the game on a perfect 10-yard throw from Cutler to Rod Smith.
And Cutler made a believer of the Cards.
“Looked like John Elway,” said frustrated Cardinals safety Adrian Wilson.
Cutler has a long way to reach Elway, but as Broncos coach Mike Shanahan said, “I just know this guy has a big-time future for us.”
Leinart has the same kind of future waiting for him in Arizona. But while Cutler could be playing in the postseason, Leinart has two games left to wash the bad taste of Sunday from his mouth.
“I thought we fought hard to the end,” Leinart said. “We couldn’t take advantage of opportunities and we haven’t. That’s about it.”