Comeback Cardinals lose to Bengals 23-16

The Cardinals kept their season alive with one fourth-quarter
comeback after another. The most improbable one yet got tripped up
at the goal line.

And, with that, Arizona’s playoff chances ended.

John Skelton threw two touchdown passes in the fourth quarter on
Saturday, but a wide-open Early Doucet tripped and fell in the end
zone on a pass that could have tied the game, allowing the
Cincinnati Bengals to hold on for a 23-16 victory that ended
Arizona’s four-game winning streak.

The slim playoff chances vanished, too.

”Yeah, we’re a second-half team,” Skelton said. ”That’s how
it has been all year. But in the end, it was too little, too
late.”

The Cardinals (7-8) didn’t even cross midfield until the fourth
quarter. All they could do was hold their heads in disbelief as the
clock ran out on them.

”This one hurts,” defensive end Calais Campbell said. ”We
poured our hearts out, but we dug too deep of a hole to get out of.
We had opportunities. It’s a tough loss.”

The Bengals (9-6) secured only their third winning record in the
last 21 years and moved into position to clinch the final AFC wild
card berth. They can win that by beating Baltimore at home next
Sunday.

Andy Dalton threw two more touchdown passes, becoming only the
fourth rookie to have 20 in a season.

Dalton threw an 11-yard touchdown pass to Jermaine Gresham and a
19-yarder to Jerome Simpson, who did a somersault over a defender
and landed on both feet in the end zone. Dalton joined Peyton
Manning (26), Charlie Conerly (22) and Dan Marino (20) as the only
NFL rookies to throw 20 touchdowns.

Down 23-0 heading into the fourth quarter, the NFL’s best
comeback team nearly pulled off its biggest one yet. Arizona took
advantage of Cedric Benson’s two fumbles, getting a pair of
touchdown passes by Skelton and Jay Feely’s field goal with 3:16
left.

The Cardinals then had their chance to pull even. The Bengals
ran an all-out blitz on fourth down from the Cincinnati 17-yard
line, and Doucet wound up uncovered at the goal line. Skelton
lofted the ball into the end zone, but Doucet tripped and fell with
1:12 to go.

”It was a blitz and nobody was there,” Doucet said. ”It was
one of those deals where I hadn’t hooked it up and my feet got
tangled. It’s a play I should’ve made. It was my fault. That’s a
play I normally make.”

Cincinnati’s defense dominated the first three quarters. Arizona
didn’t cross midfield until Skelton completed a pass with 13:25 to
go, but piled up 208 yards in the final quarter.

”The first three quarters were forgettable, to say the least,”
said Larry Fitzgerald, whose 30-yard touchdown catch got the
comeback going.

Skelton started for the second consecutive week in place of
Kevin Kolb, who hasn’t fully recovered from a concussion. Skelton
was 23 of 44 for 297 yards with three interceptions and five sacks
that helped the Bengals get the 23-0 lead.

It could have been worse. Mike Nugent, the NFL’s most accurate
kicker, missed field goals of 35 and 48 yards in the first
half.

Arizona has rallied from fourth-quarter deficits six times this
season, one shy of the NFL record. The Cardinals have won three
games in overtime, tying the league record.

They couldn’t do it one more time.

Dalton was 18 of 31 for 154 yards and two touchdowns on a sunny,
39-degree afternoon in front of only 41,273 fans. The Bengals have
sold out only one of their seven home games, when the Steelers
brought thousands of fans.

Dalton’s second touchdown pass had a highlight finish.

Simpson got open for a catch-and-run to the goal line. With
Daryl Washington between him and the end zone, Simpson jumped and
twirled past the linebacker, landing on both feet in the end zone
and raising both arms like a triumphant gymnast.

”One of the key parts for me was I stuck the landing,” Simpson
said. ”I stuck the landing like a gymnast. That was probably one
of the most surprising of all the plays in my career. It was pretty
awesome, I thought.”

For most of the game, the Cardinals couldn’t do anything right.
Rookie cornerback Patrick Peterson picked off a Dalton pass in the
third quarter, but the interception was nullified by Arizona’s
second roughing-the-passer penalty of the game.

Worse, Peterson hurt his left hamstring on the play, pulling up
on the return. The first-round pick left the game and didn’t
return. He wore a protective boot after the game.

”He’s got a strain, it’s not a tear,” coach Ken Whisenhunt
said. ”We’re fortunate that it doesn’t appear to anything
long-term.”

Notes: Beanie Wells became the first Cardinal to run for 1,000
yards and 10 touchdowns in a season. … After the game, the
Bengals made a buy-one, get-one-free offer to season ticket
holders, trying to fill the stadium for the final game. … A.J.
Green, playing with a strained right shoulder, had two catches for
25 yards. He passed Cris Collinsworth’s club record for a rookie
with 1,013 yards on the season.