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49ers vs. Cardinals: Takeaways from Arizona's 23-20 Loss to San Francisco

Shaun ChurchContributor IDecember 30, 2013

49ers vs. Cardinals: Takeaways from Arizona's 23-20 Loss to San Francisco

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    Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    In the 2013 season finale, the Arizona Cardinals had a chance to do something no Cardinals team had done since 1974: Win 11 games. The San Francisco 49ers had other plans, however, defeating Arizona, 23-20.

    The Cardinals (10-6) started out flat and dug themselves a three-score hole from which they could not recover.

    Quarterback Carson Palmer threw an early interception into what appeared to be quadruple coverage—linebackers and defensive backs smothered wideout Michael Floyd over the middle and, ultimately, NaVorro Bowman came up with the pick. Running back Rashard Mendenhall fumbled away the ball on a run play up the middle after hitting a pile with only one arm covering the ball (his forte).

    Turnovers are difficult to overcome against good teams. Losing the turnover battle against a team such as the 49ers is going to turn out poorly for most teams.

    Here are some takeaways from the season finale.

Palmer Finishes Season as He Starts It

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    Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    Palmer started slowly this season, throwing an interception in a season-opening loss to the St. Louis Rams. He threw picks in each of his first nine games this year, in fact.

    He also was a big reason the team became a contender, going through a midseason stretch that would rival many elite quarterbacks’ five-game stretch.

    From Weeks 11 to 15, Palmer completed 69.8 percent of his passes for 1,535 yards, nine touchdowns and two interceptions (both picks in one game) for a 107.3 passer rating. The team went 4-1 over that time.

    But Palmer threw four interceptions in Seattle last week. The team won regardless, but early turnovers doomed Arizona this week against San Francisco. His inexcusable pick to Bowman was a big part of that, as it led to a touchdown five plays later.

    Palmer threw a career-high 22 interceptions this season. While some point to that as being a good reason not to bring him back, the fact is that Palmer was a big reason the team even sniffed playoff contention as late into the season as it did.

    He threw for 407 yards on Sunday, becoming the first player in NFL history to throw for at least 4,000 yards with three different teams. He broke a tie with Peyton Manning, Brett Favre, Drew Bledsoe, Kurt Warner and Hall of Famer Warren Moon.

    Without Palmer, the Cardinals may have won seven games this season. Maybe.

Ellington in Rare Company

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    Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

    Rookie running back Andre Ellington had his moments in 2013. Most of those moments left fans wondering how veteran Rashard Mendenhall continued to get more playing time over him, but there were a few mistakes sprinkled in amid his historic campaign.

    Historic, you ask?

    Yes, Ellington did something this season that only three other backs in NFL history had done. He became the fourth rookie running back to average 5.0 yards per carry (minimum 100 carries) and average 9.0 yards per reception (minimum 30 receptions). The others were Maurice Jones-Drew in 2006, Clinton Portis in 2002 and Abner Haynes in 1960.

    On the season, Ellington carried 118 times for 669 yards (5.7 YPC) and three touchdowns and added 39 receptions for 371 yards (9.5 YPC) and a touchdown.

    Add up his yards from scrimmage, and you get another historic total. Ellington (1,040) is the fourth rookie running back in Cardinals franchise history to surpass 1,000 yards from scrimmage, joining Ronald Moore (1,034 in 1993), Johnny Johnson (1,167 in 1990) and Ottis Anderson (1,913 in 1979).

    He appears to have a future as bright as any young back in the league.

Floyd Joins the 1,000-Yard Club

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    Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    Michael Floyd (1,041 joined Steve Breaston (1,006 in 2008), David Boston (1,156 in 2000) and Larry Fitzgerald (1,409 in 2005) as the only receivers in franchise history to top 1,000 receiving yards as a sophomore NFL receiver.

    He finished the season with 65 receptions for 1,041 yards and five touchdowns.

    Floyd dropped two passes early and looked out of sync with Palmer. But things started clicking as the game progressed, and with a 44-yard deep ball in the third quarter, Floyd surpassed 1,000 yards on the season; Palmer surpassed 4,000 yards passing on the play as well.

    Ending up as the leading receiver for the Cardinals is impressive. He is the first receiver not named Fitzgerald to lead the team in receiving yards since 2006, when Fitz played only 13 games due to injury.

    It is the only time Fitzgerald has played all 16 games and not led the team in receiving. Unfortunately for Fitzgerald, that could come up when the team approaches him this offseason wanting to redo his contract.

Outstanding Pass Protection

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    Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    The offensive line struggled at times this season, allowing seven sacks to the Seahawks in the teams’ first meeting and five to the Eagles in early December. But against one of the best pass-rushing defenses in the league on Sunday, the Arizona offensive line held strong and allowed just one sack of Palmer.

    Digging around for stats, it was found that the six games of allowing one or fewer sacks this season is the most in a season for the Cardinals since 2009.

    And while the 41 sacks allowed this season by Arizona is not great, it’s wonderful compared to the three-season stretch from 2010 to 2012, when it allowed an average of 54 per season.

    Palmer was hit four times by the 49ers on Sunday. Considering he dropped back 50 times, that’s a very low number.

    Even going back to last week in Seattle, the protection was solid—Palmer was sacked just twice against the Seahawks. It’s clear the line came together as the season wore on, and that will make things interesting as the offseason begins and players like guard Jonathan Cooper join the team for workouts, Cooper after missing his rookie season with a broken leg.

    After the finish they had, does the left tackle position really need to be upgraded? Probably, but the Cardinals may not worry as much if their left tackle plans fall through and they’re stuck with Bradley Sowell in 2014.

No. 1 Run D for a Reason

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    Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

    It’s really a shame the Cardinals didn’t make the playoffs this season, because the defense is good enough to take them on a deep playoff run. How good is the run defense? Chew on this for a minute:

    All-Pro running back Frank Gore carried 13 times for 14 yards (1.1 YPC) with a long carry of eight yards. That 1.1 yards-per-carry average is the second lowest he’s ever had in a game in which he carried at least 10 times—only Oct. 19, 2008 against the New York Giants was worse.

    Arizona held San Francisco to 83 yards on 23 carries (3.6 YPC), just about hitting its season mark for yards per game and yards per carry allowed.

    These guys were phenomenal on Sunday. If you take away two gimmicky reverse plays on the initial drive of the game that totaled 37 yards, the 49ers gained 46 yards on 21 carries (2.2 YPC).

    It would be wise to keep as many players from the front seven around for next year, because they are fantastic at stopping the run. Starting over would be a disappointing setback.

Williams’ First Sack

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    Norm Hall/Getty Images

    He played a great game considering the circumstances. Those circumstances were that nose tackle Dan Williams’ backup, Alameda Ta’amu, left the game early on with what is believed to be a torn ACL, according to Kyle Odegard of AZCardinals.com.

    That left Williams to play most of the defensive snaps in the trenches, whereas he and Ta’amu would normally split them about 50/50.

    Williams recorded only two tackles on Sunday, but he was around the ball-carrier a bunch and stuffed running lanes all afternoon—as per his usual.

    But he recorded his first career sack as well.

    He brought a ferocious pass rush that sent quarterback Colin Kaepernick running for his life to no avail; Williams had the gazelle-like signal-caller in his grasp too quickly for him to get away.

    Thus (hopefully) begins the era of terrifying pass rushing from Williams. We’ll have to wait until 2014 to see if that’s the case.

Covering Anquan Boldin

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    Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    Before Sunday's game, 49ers receiver Anquan Boldin had played two games against the team that drafted him. In those games, he had a total of 10 receptions for 173 yards (17.3 YPC). He nearly matched that this time around.

    Working mainly against cornerback Jerraud Powers, Boldin tallied nine receptions for 149 yards (16.6 YPC) and a touchdown on Sunday. He was heavily featured and and was even used in the rushing attack, taking a reverse for 11 yards on San Francisco's opening drive.

    He proved to be a vital piece in the 49ers jumping out to a 17-0 first-half lead. In fact, all six of his first-half receptions for 106 yards and a touchdown came on the three scoring drives put together by Kaepernick and Co., including a 63-yard catch-and-run that led to a three-yard touchdown from Kaepernick to tight end Vernon Davis.

    The game was Boldin's second 100-yard performance of the season, and his touchdown gave him seven on the year—the most he's had in any season since 2010, his first year in Baltimore.

Au Revoir, Jay Feely

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    Calais Campbell (left) walks with Jay Feely (right) after Sunday's game.
    Calais Campbell (left) walks with Jay Feely (right) after Sunday's game.Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    It was almost difficult to write that header, because kicker Jay Feely has been a joy to watch over the past four seasons. From personally outscoring the Denver Broncos in 2010 to his 61-yard field goal in 2012 to hustling down the field to make tackles every chance he got, Feely gave it his all for 64 games in Cardinal Red.

    But when it’s time, it’s time. And for Feely, it’s time to say thank you and good bye. He missed two key field goals on Sunday that would have changed the direction of the game in Arizona’s favor.

    Palmer’s 34-yard strike to Andre Roberts that tied the game at 17 apiece would have given the team a 23-17 lead had he connected on those two field goals he shanked.

    #Cardinals K Jay Feely on his two misses: "You've got to come through for your team. It hurts when you don't."

    — Fox Sports 910 (@foxsports910) December 30, 2013

    Yes it does, Jay.

    He was in a contract year, and he missed far too many field goals to be worth re-signing (30-of-36, 83.3 percent). At age 37, could it be time for him to call it a career? At 1,437 career points, he's 23rd all-time in scoring.

    He is one of 30 NFL kickers with more career points than Jerry Rice, the all-time leading scorer for non-kickers with 1,256 points.

    He has had a long and productive career, clearly. Maybe it's not time to hang up the cleats, but it is time for the Cardinals to find a different option at the kicker position.

    Au revoir, Jay Feely.

    *****

    All stats provided by Pro-Football-Reference.com

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