When the Cardinals went undefeated in September, a four-win span that included a victory over the Patriots in Foxborough, many folks declared them a surprise team this season. But after following up with a winless October, you'd have to label Arizona as a disappointment.
Although they came into Monday night's game with three consecutive losses, the Cardinals had a chance to pull into a tie for first place in the NFC West with San Francisco. But they stubbed their collective toes with a powerless performance in a 24-3 loss to the 49ers at University of Phoenix Stadium.
At the halfway point of the season, it would be premature to declare Arizona dead, but it certainly is in critical condition. Consider the immediate future. The Cardinals travel to Green Bay for a game on Sunday and then, after their bye week, they head to Atlanta to face the undefeated Falcons. It's not out of the question that they could be 4-6 after that stretch.
"It was disappointing to say the least," Ken Whisenhunt, now 44-44 in the regular season as the Cardinals' coach, said in his press conference after Monday night's game. "We've got a lot of things we've got to work on and get fixed."
One thing that needs fixing is the running game. With their top two running backs, Beanie Wells (toe) and Ryan Williams (shoulder) injured, the Cardinals' ground game was no match for San Francisco's top-rated run defense. Arizona rushed nine times for a net of seven yards. LaRod Stephens-Howling managed to muster only six yards in eight attempts, but there weren't many running lanes to be found. On one play early in the second quarter, 49ers tackle Ray McDonald charged through the middle untouched and tackled Stephens-Howling for a 5-yard loss.
The Cardinals didn't have much better luck throwing the ball, either. John Skelton, who had been 6-0 as a starter at home, completed 32 of 52 passes for 290 yards but had no touchdowns, was intercepted once and sacked four times.
Meanwhile, 49ers quarterback Alex Smith was nearly flawless. After throwing for only one touchdown and four interceptions in his previous two games, Smith hit on 18 of 19 attempts for 232 yards and three touchdowns, although Arizona sacked him four times. His passer rating of 157.1 fell just short of perfection.
"It was just one of those nights," Smith said in an interview with ESPN after the game. "It's no magic; it's just going out and executing. It's making good decisions. I probably should have had a couple more incompletions, thrown a couple away. I thought we executed well tonight across the board."
Two of Smith's scoring passes went to Michael Crabtree, who always seems to play well against the Cardinals. After catching 14 passes for 183 yards in two games against Arizona last year, Crabtree had five receptions for 72 yards Monday night. On his first touchdown, Crabtree out jumped cornerback Patrick Peterson on a 3-yard fade to the corner of the end zone. On his second TD, Crabtree caught a short pass and then burst past Peterson, who slipped, for a 9-yard score.
There even was a Randy Moss sighting in the end zone. On a play that looked like it was from his prime, Retro Randy caught a pass on the corner, made a couple of moves and evaded two Cardinals tacklers, then raced down the left sideline to complete a 47-yard score for his second touchdown of the season.
The well-rested 49ers -- they hadn't played a game since Oct. 18 -- won for the 19th time in 24 regular-season games under second-year coach Jim Harbaugh. In their last four victories, the Niners have allowed only 12 points (beating the Jets, 34-0, the Bills 45-3, the Seahawks 13-6 and now the Cardinals 24-3).
They went 5-1 against division rivals en route to winning the NFC West last year and are 2-0 in divisional games this season. They're 6-2 overall heading into the bye week. The second half of their schedule presents three challenging games (home against Chicago, at New England and at Seattle), but they have put themselves in good position to defend their NFC West title and return to the playoffs.
"Every game is important to us," said Crabtree. "We look at the film and just try to get better every game. We're not thinking too hard. It's really just going out there and executing plays."
Before Monday night, the Cardinals were the only NFL team that hadn't allowed more than 21 points in any game. In their four defeats, by contrast, they have scored a total of 36 points.
Arizona put together two 14-play drives against San Francisco, but couldn't put the ball in the end zone. They drove 80 yards in the third quarter before the series stalled and Jay Feely kicked a 28-yard field goal. On their final possession, the Cardinals went 69 yards but a Skelton-to-Larry Fitzgerald pass on fourth-and-goal was stopped at the 1.
Adding to the Cardinals' woes was a scary moment late in the first quarter when Fitzgerald landed awkwardly, his facemask slamming into the ground, on an incompletion. He went to the sideline and was attended by the medical staff before returning for the next series.
To make matters worse, the Cardinals don't have time to feel sorry for themselves. Not with the Packers up next.
"We're going to come back to work on Wednesday in a short week, put this behind us, but we're not going to lose sight of the fact we didn't get the job done when we needed to," Whisenhunt said.
Since 1990, 82.5 percent of teams that started the season 4-0 have made the playoffs. Unless the Cardinals can find a way to stop their downward spiral quickly, they won't be part of that majority.