There are no moral victories in the NFL. With just 16 games on the schedule and livelihoods riding on every one of those games, it is the ultimate results-oriented business.
Nobody knows this better than Larry Fitzgerald, whose second-half fumble was a key play in the Cardinals’ 32-20 loss on Sunday in in their final trip to San Francisco’s Candlestick Park.
“I’m not going to sleep at all,” Fitzgerald said. “I let my team down.”
But if there is still room for nuance in pro sports (and sports journalism), the aftertaste from this loss was noticeably sweeter than the previous week’s win over the Panthers for one simple reason: The Cardinals competed on both sides of the ball.
“When we quit beating ourselves, we can beat anybody,” coach Bruce Arians said.
Few teams will win when they turn the ball over four times, as the Cardinals did, setting a season high. Few teams will win if they allow tight ends to shred them for season highs on a near-weekly basis, as San Francisco’s Vernon Davis did with eight catches for 180 yards and two touchdowns.
But the Cardinals offense showed a pulse on Sunday, amassing a season-high 403 yards. That alone is cause for celebration after the last few weeks’ unwatchable theater.
The Cardinals connected on some of those downfield shots that have been missing, including a 75-yard TD pass to Fitzgerald. And they matched the 49ers from a physical standpoint, rushing for a season-high 109 yards against one of the league’s elite defensive units.
“Offensively, we look really good,” Arians said.
During his press conference last Monday, Arians tried to convince reporters that quarterback Carson Palmer could still be trusted, despite having thrown seven interceptions in his previous three games.
“The best thing about it, when things go wrong, is he can overcome it,” Arians said. “He can set it aside and go to the next series.”
So while some were calling for Palmer’s benching after he tossed two early interceptions on Sunday that led to six San Francisco points, Arians stayed the course and got rewarded.
After the rocky start, Palmer completed 23 of his final 35 passes for two TDs and 293 yards. Meanwhile, running backs Rashard Mendenhall and Andre Ellington took turns gaining chunks of yardage behind a physical offensive line.
“Going into this, we said we had to have sixty minutes and come out swinging every time,” right tackle Eric Winston said. “I thought we held up our end of the bargain as far as that goes in the offensive line, and I thought we came out like a ball of fire.”
None of this will matter if the Cardinals don’t build off this performance when they host the Seahawks on Thursday at University of Phoenix Stadium. If they lose that game, they will be 0-3 in division play, 3-4 overall and in dead last in the NFC West.
Maybe it’s too much to expect a playoff team in Arians’ first year. More than half the roster has turned over, and the systems are new on both sides of the ball. No matter what anyone says publicly, this is clearly still a work in progress.
But it’s a refreshing sign when the team walks away from a road matchup with the defending NFC champs with this thought rattling around linebacker John Abraham’s mind.