BY: ED COLE
GLENDALE, Ariz. – On the final day of the regular season, a lot was on the line for the Arizona Cardinals in Santa Clara, Calif., as they took on the San Francisco 49ers, playing in what was Jim Harbaugh’s final game as 49ers head coach. Arizona still could’ve won the NFC West, gotten a No. 1 seed and home field throughout the NFC Playoffs with a win over San Francisco and a lot of help.
Quarterback Ryan Lindley and the offense looked like they were in playoff mode early in the game. Arizona got the opening kickoff and marched 80 yards for a touchdown – Lindley hit wide receiver Michael Floyd over the middle for a 20-yard score. The Cardinals took a 7-0 lead and things seemed like it was rolling in the right direction.
San Francisco would rally and score 13 straight points after that. Still in the first quarter, 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick found a wide-open Anquan Boldin behind the defense and made them pay for letting No. 81 get free. Boldin torched the defense on a 76-yard touchdown pass, tying the game at 7.
Arizona battled back to score 10 straight of their own. Lindley connected with Floyd yet again on a 41-yard touchdown pass, giving the Cardinals a 17-13 lead at halftime.
Lindley looked comfortable and confident in the pocket in the first half and his numbers backed it up. He completed 16 of his 25 passes for 260 yards, two touchdowns [the first two of his career] and one interception.
Unfortunately Lindley and the Cardinals couldn’t maintain the lead in the second half. Arizona’s defense held Frank Gore and Kaepernick in check on the ground in the first half, but couldn’t in the second half. Gore ran for a game-high 144 yards – 122 of them in the second half, as the 49ers were able to shut Lindley and the Cardinals offense down after the intermission, and get one more score of their own to slide by Arizona 20-17.
With the loss, the Cardinals end the regular season with an 11-5 record and will head to Charlotte, N.C., next weekend to take on the NFC South champion Carolina Panthers in a wild-card playoff game.
Arizona had nine first downs and 316 yards of offense in the first half. That firepower was nowhere to be found after the halftime break. They could only manage 81 yards in the second half, while San Francisco got it done on the ground. They ran for 206 yards – 163 of it in the second half.
For the game, Lindley completed 23 of his 39 passes for 316 yards, two touchdowns and three interceptions. Lindley showed a lot of good things, but showed quite a few irritating things. On his three interceptions, Lindley was clearly staring down his targets, which made it easy for the 49ers defenders to figure out where he was going with his throws. Those are things Lindley will have to work on moving forward.
Lindley’s favorite target on the day was wide receiver Michael Floyd. Floyd was targeted 12 times. He caught eight passes for 153 yards and the aforementioned two touchdowns.
The running game was pretty effective for the most part on Sunday. Arizona had 98 yards rushing as a team. Kerwynn Williams was the bellcow, gaining 67 yards on 17 tackles.
What was once a stout run defense has completely fallen apart over the last six weeks of the regular season. Over those six weeks [six games], the Cardinals defense has given up 120 yards rushing or more in five of those six weeks/games. Against the Seahawks and 49ers, they surrendered 473 yards rushing combined.
On San Francisco’s game clinching scoring drive, Kaepernick did his best Russell Wilson impression from a week ago. Kaepernick ran off left tackle for 30 yards on the second play from scrimmage. Three plays later, he ran off left guard for 15 more yards. It would all culminate with Kaepernick finding another wide open target – fullback Bruce Miller in the back of the end zone for the game’s final score.
It was alarming to see the defense regress when it came to tackling and the lack of communication on a lot of plays. They were missing inside linebacker Larry Foote, who missed his first game of the year with a knee injury. Foote is the main communicator on defense, getting guys lined up and making sure it all fits and works. Without him, it was on Kevin Minter, Glenn Carson and Kenny Demens to man the inside linebacker spots. San Francisco saw that Arizona was going to be different up the middle and picked at it until it bled.
Next up for the Cardinals: they come home and spend the week getting ready for their cross-country trip and game against the Panthers. The last time Arizona took on Carolina in the playoffs was their Super Bowl season. It was a good trip. They won that game 33-13. It won’t be easy. The Panthers are coming into the game on a four game winning streak, including a 34-3 pounding of the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday, allowing them to claim back-to-back NFC South championships.