Cardinals end season with 23-20 loss to 49ers

The Arizona Cardinals needed a win and some help to get into the

playoffs.

They got neither, though it won’t diminish what they were able

to accomplish in one season under new coach Bruce Arians.

Arizona rallied from a 17-point deficit to tie the game late in

the fourth quarter, but couldn’t stop San Francisco in the final 29

seconds. Phil Dawson kicked a 40-yard field goal as the game ended

to give the 49ers a 23-20 victory on Sunday.

”It’s been a good year,” Arians said. ”I really hate to see

this football team’s season end because it’s been so much fun

working with them. No team stays the same in the NFL, there’s so

much change and turnover. We’ll do everything we can to keep the

core of this team together because there are a lot of winners in

this locker room.”

Arizona (10-6) made a dramatic turnaround in its first season

under Arians, doubling its win total from last season’s 5-11

collapse.

The Cardinals came up just short of the playoffs, though, unable

to hold off the 49ers or get help from the New Orleans Saints, who

clinched the NFC’s final playoff spot by rolling over Tampa

Bay.

The Cardinals fell behind the 49ers 17-0 in the first quarter

thanks to a rash of dropped passes, errant throws and an inability

to cover Anquan Boldin, the former Arizona receiver who finished

with nine catches for 149 yards.

Arizona (10-6) rallied behind its defense in the second half,

tying the game at 20 on Andre Roberts’ spectacular 34-yard

touchdown catch with just over three minutes left.

Dawson followed with a 56-yard field goal, but Jay Feely, who

missed two kicks earlier in the game, tied it on a 43-yarder with

29 seconds left, giving the Cardinals hope of ending the season

with a victory.

Instead, the 49ers snatched it away, setting up Dawson’s final

attempt with a big kickoff return by LaMichael James and an

acrobatic 24-yard catch by Quinton Patton along the sideline with 2

seconds left.

Dawson’s kick was true, sending the 49ers charging out onto the

field and the Cardinals into the offseason with plenty of

confidence despite the disappointing finish.

”It’s unfortunate,” Cardinals defensive tackle Darnell Dockett

said. ”We played great ball and we came up short.”

The Cardinals went into the game clinging to playoff hopes,

needing a win over the 49ers and a loss or tie by New Orleans. The

start couldn’t have gone much worse for the Cardinals.

With the scoreboard showing New Orleans out to a quick 7-0 lead,

the 49ers marched quickly on their opening drive for a 27-yard

field goal.

The Buccaneers tied the Saints, but the good news didn’t last

for the Cardinals; Carson Palmer threw a ball that was intercepted

by NaVorro Bowman, who returned it to Arizona’s 22-yard line. Colin

Kaepernick hit Boldin on a 4-yard touchdown pass five plays

later.

Feely then missed his first field goal, from 37 yards, and

Boldin turned a short catch into a 63-yard play to set up another

4-yard touchdown pass, from Kaepernick to Vernon Davis.

While the story on the scoreboard continued to be grim – the

Saints went up 21-7 on Drew Brees’ third TD pass – the Cardinals

finally started to hit a rhythm on offense.

Arizona also stiffened on defense in the second half, pulling

within 17-10 when Feely hit a 49-yard field goal early in the

fourth quarter.

The problem for Arizona was it didn’t matter at that point; the

Saints were rolling, up 42-17.

With the playoffs out of reach, the Cardinals refused to quit,

putting together a rally that came up just short. A disappointing

finish, but Arizona did win six of its final eight games after

going 1-11 to close out the 2012 season.

”The one thing that impresses me most is just how much better

we are than at the start of the season,”` Arizona tackle Erin

Winston said. ”People think that’s everybody, but it’s not. A lot

of teams don’t get better during the season. This team is probably

the most improved in the league.”

NOTES: Palmer threw for 407 yards to become the first player in

NFL history to throw for over 4,000 with three different teams. He

also eclipsed the mark in Oakland and Cincinnati. … San Francisco

RB Frank Gore had 14 yards on 13 carries, leaving him 34 short of

becoming the 29th player in NFL history to reach 10,000. …

Cardinals NT Alameda Ta’amu suffered what Arians said appears to be

a torn right ACL after landing awkwardly in the first half.