Heading into Week 5, there remained three undefeated teams at 4-0, and the Arizona Cardinals and Atlanta Falcons were two of them. In the weeks that followed the teams fortunes couldn't have been more different. While The Cardinals suffered five back-to-back losses heading into their bye week, the Falcons would extend their unbeaten streak to eight games before finally suffering their first loss in Week 10 to the New Orleans Saints. Coming into the game, the Falcons were clear favorites, but Matt Ryan's interception on the first offensive play of the game, and a quick Cardinals touchdown quickly changed the complexion. The Cardinals built up a 13-0 lead, picking off Ryan twice more and adding two field goals before the end of the first period of play, however, even this was, in many ways, a disappointment. The Cardinals had the chance to put the game to bed early, when starting quarterback John Skelton had star receiver Larry Fitzgerald open in the end zone, but the ball was overthrown, and the Cardinals squandered great field position, which quickly became the theme of the afternoon. In the end, several Cardinals mistakes, rather than anything the Falcons offence was able to do, gifted Atlanta the win. The first mistake was one of coaching, with the benching of John Skelton. It's not that Skelton was doing a good job -- he wasn't. On three drives Skelton just 2 of 7 for six yards, including the overthrown pass to Fitzgerald, and the Cardinals coaching staff clearly felt that he should have done better. You won't hear many disagree there, but putting in an untested rookie did not improve matters at all. Rookie Ryan Lindlay ended the game 9 of 20 for 64 yards and a fumble. Like Skelton, Lindlay overthrew multiple balls which could have been huge plays. Like Skelton, Lindlay failed to get the Cardinals best receivers, Fitzgerald, Andre Roberts and Michael Floyd involved in the game in any meaningful way. But unlike Skelton, Lindlay also made the job of the opposing defense much easier. Lindlay stared down intended receivers, failed to step up, and didn't know when to give up on plays which were going nowhere, turning short sacks into huge losses. Sure, it's unfair to expect much more from a sixth round rookie, and many of these issues are ones which Skelton himself has suffered from in the past. But the simple fact of the matter is, in less than one quarter under Skelton, the Cardinals posted 13 points including their only touchdown, in the remaining three under Lindlay, they posted just 6 points, and gave up a costly fumble. In their final six possessions, of the game, the cardinals failed to record a single first down. This was a simple failure of coaching and made worse by their unwillingness to acknowledge that things were not working for Lindlay, that he was in over his head, and return Skelton to the game with a win very much within their grips. The second failure was one which many Cardinals fans will struggle to accept, but it was a failure by Larry Fitzgerald. Early in the second quarter, John Abraham reached the Cardinals quarterback and got his hand on the ball. The ball came out oddly and Fitzgerald tracked back to try and catch the seemingly errant pass. Number 11 was unable to reach the ball, and simply walked away from it as it laid on the floor, believing it to be an incomplete pass. But there was no whistle. As players stood around confused, the Falcons identified that the ball may have in fact been fumbled, and Jonathan Babineaux scooped up the ball, returning it for a touchdown, which was upheld after a replay -- Lindlay's hand was coming forward empty. In school, the first thing all players are taught is to play until the whistle. Had Fitzgerald jumped on the ball, the result would have been a short gain, and given the confusion, possibly even more. Instead, the lapse cost the Cardinals 7 points, and a huge swing in momentum. Fitzgerald was certainly the closest player to the ball, and these heads up plays are a must for players of his caliber, especially when the offense is struggling the way the Cardinals have been. The final mistake was once more on the coaching staff. Early in the game, the Cardinals had been successful running the ball to the outside. LaRod Stephens-Howling is an undersized back who is very elusive. In recent weeks, he has evolved into a dependable rusher for the Cardinals, posting his second 100+ yard game of the season. However, to be successful the Cardinals know that they cannot use him as a bruising up-the-gut runner. The team have William Powell for this. And yet, after multiple 40+ yard gains early in the game running to the outside, late in the day with the game on the line, the Cardinals coaching staff insisted on calling runs up the middle with Stephens-Howling. This would be understandable, even sensible, had the Cardinals been using play action and draw plays to confuse the Falcons, but this wasn't the case. They were trying smash-mouth football with a 5'7" 185 lb back. Unsurprisingly, his early production did not hold up, and in spite of posting a career high 127 yards, once more, the Cardinals run game sputtered into insignificance as the game progressed, rather than confidently controlling the outcome. This is simply inexcusable especially when playing with a third string rookie quarterback. There were, however, numerous highlights for the Cardinals. Their defense looked as good as perhaps they have been all season. Ray Horton's unit had one sack, six turnovers -- five interceptions and a fumble. All told 10 different defensive players managed to touch the ball including tips and picks. They gave up just 58 yards on the ground, and although they gave up 301 yards through the air, nonetheless held Matt Ryan without a touchdown for just the second time this season. Indeed, the Cardinals defense gave up just 16 points against an offense which has averaged 27 points per game, good enough for the win if not for the Lindlay fumble earlier in the game. Similarly, kicker Jay Feely who struggled a little earlier in the season, was perfect, hitting three field goals, and an extra point. Punter Dave Zastudil was similarly impressive pinning the Falcons back deep, and making it tough for them to post points on the board. However, all of this only makes the loss all the more difficult to stomach, and their offensive struggles all the more frustrating. The Cardinals seem to have all the necessary components to win games. Their defense is one of the best units in the NFL, their special teams is competent enough to give their team a shot too. The teams running game is developing into a legitimate threat when the play calling is right, and they undoubtedly have a receiving corps who can make plays when given a shot. Even the Cardinals much maligned offensive line is improving, and yet in spite of all of this, quarterback play and questionable play calling continue to cost the team games. The Cardinals face division rivals the St. Louis Rams in Arizona next week, and anything short of a win could spell the end, not only of the Cardinals season, but also quite possibly mark the beginning of the end of head coach Ken Whisenhunt's tenure in charge of the Arizona Cardinals.
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