GLENDALE, Ariz. — Down 16-13 with 1:09 to play and their kicker Jay Feely lining up for a 61-yard field goal, the Cardinals had the Bills right where they wanted them.
This was the well-worn script at University of Phoenix Stadium. Seven times in their last eight home outings, the Cardinals had come down to the wire with an opponent. Seven times, the Cardinals had won in thrilling fashion.
When Feely drilled his franchise-record-breaking field goal with room to spare, win No. 8 appeared poised for launch following one of the wildest final five minutes in memory.
Then it all went south. Feely banged a 38-yarder off the left upright that would have won the game on the last play of regulation. Running back LaRod Stephens-Howling dropped what would have been a big gain on a screen pass in overtime, and quarterback John Skelton threw an interception on the next play to set up Rian Lindell’s game-winning, coach-saving, 25-yard field goal in Buffalo’s 19-16 overtime win.
“I can’t tell you what he was looking at,” Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt said of Skelton’s pivotal play. “It’s unfortunate it worked out the way it did.”
While the win may have saved Bills coach Chan Gailey’s job following blowout losses the previous two weeks, the knee-jerk reaction in Arizona was to say that the Cardinals lost more than a game on Sunday.
In this instance, the knee-jerk reaction is an accurate one. Already short-handed at running back, offensive tackle and tight end, the Cards lost starting quarterback Kevin Kolb to a rib/chest injury late in the fourth quarter when he was tackled at the end of a broken play. Kolb was being X-rayed after the game, so there was no immediate word on his condition.
If he misses time, Skelton will have to step back into the role he held before an ankle injury in Week 1 shelved him for the past several weeks.
Kolb was not brilliant Sunday. He threw a bad pick and completed just 14 of 26 passes for 128 yards and a TD. But he did a remarkable job of eluding pressure, rushing for 66 yards on five carries and avoiding sacks behind what was once again a porous offensive line.
“My hat’s off to Kevin,” Skelton said. “I know what it’s like to be back there with the bullets flying and feeling like you’ve got to scramble almost every play. He made plays down the field with his legs. It’s rare that you see someone make one play. He made them several times in the game.
“It was almost like it was a matter of time before you figured something would happen to him. You can only take so many hits and so many shots. I hope he’s alright.”
Over the first four weeks of the season, Kolb had finally forged a belief among his teammates that he could get the job done. Now, he may be back on the injury shelf. And he won’t be alone. Starting free safety Kerry Rhodes suffered what Whisenhunt termed a back injury, although it appeared Rhodes also took a low blow to the back of the knee from Bills guard Andy Levitre as he was grabbing his lower back. To watch Rhodes struggle to dress himself in the locker room afterward was to know that the injury is not minor.
“I’m not good,” was all Rhodes would say.
Neither is the Cardinals’ current predicament. As the NFL proves every week, no outcome is predetermined, but the next four games represent the most daunting stretch of Arizona’s schedule.
The Cards play at Minnesota this Sunday, host the 49ers on Monday Night Football, then play at Green Bay and Atlanta on either side of their bye week. In the blink of an eye, it’s conceivable this team could go from 4-0 to 4-6.
That’s why Sunday’s game was so vital. With the 49ers and Rams also losing, the Cardinals had a chance to move into sole possession of first place in the division. Instead, the Seahawks won to forge a three-way tie atop the NFC West with the banged-up Cardinals facing a scheduling gauntlet.
“When you don’t make plays, they’re going to come back and bite you sooner or later,” defensive captain Adrian Wilson said. “We’ve got to find some kind of consistency on both sides of the ball. I know it sounds like an old cliché, but (expletive), it’s all we can do at this point.”