No team wishes to suffer a loss, especially one as heart-wrenching as an 18-play, 99-yard drive that ends on a TD pass as time expires.
Typically, the refrain is, "We don't need moral victories; we need wins." For the Arizona Cardinals, yesterday's outcome is that rare game when a moral victory is acceptable.
Let me count the ways.
1. Matt Leinart proved me and all the other doubters wrong. After struggling to find his rhythm in the first half, Leinart came raging back in the second to answer all the questions about his ability to lead the ball club.
Remember, Kurt Warner took all of the first-team snaps in practice this week and was expected to play despite the mild concussion he suffered in last week's game. When Warner was declared a late scratch, Leinart had to essentially wing it with very little preparation, no small task considering he was replacing the most efficient QB in road games this season.
Leinart showed poise, savvy, confidence, pinpoint accuracy, and yes—leadership. For Cardinals Nation it is a big sigh of relief, and one of many reasons to celebrate this game even in a loss.
2. The Steelers, the Ravens, and the Titans are the poster children for smash-mouth NFL football, yet the Cardinals went toe to toe with Tennessee. In a black and blue brawl, it was the Cardinals who were every bit as physical and matched the intensity and toughness of the Titans all game and all over the field.
Tennessee is a trash-talking, big-stick-wagging squad that uses intimidation as part of its game plan. Arizona not only didn't back down, they dished out some of their own handcrafted punishment as well.
For a team that is usually defined by the finesse of its efficient passing game, this was a statement game. Given that the Cardinals next host the Vikings in a flexed prime time Sunday Night Football affair, they will need that violence to carry over into the next game and beyond.
3. Coming into the contest, Tennessee had allowed a league-fewest seven sacks in 10 games. By the end of their 11th game they had allowed 11 sacks.
Darnell Dockett was an uncontainable beast, notching three of the sacks on his own against one of the best offensive lines in the league.
4. Perhaps most importantly, this was one of the best all-around performances by the Arizona team this season. The entire team stepped up with Warner out. The game ball could be given to any of a handful of players who made tremendous contributions.
My game balls go to:
Matt Leinart, who answered the critics with a stellar performance, completing 21 of his 31 passes for 220 yards without a turnover.
Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie for three huge textbook pass deflections in pass coverage, and for causing the fumble on Kenny Britt that gave Arizona the ball with four minutes to play while clutching a four-point lead.
LaRod Stephens-Howling for being a special teams demon. After Chris Johnson's deadly 85-yard run to put Tennessee up by 10 points, LSH answered on the very next play with a 99-yard kickoff return to cut the lead back to a manageable three. He downed two punts inside the two-yard line and made a huge hit in kickoff coverage.
Ben Graham continued his Pro Bowl caliber punting. Our "Big Ben" had five of his six punts downed inside the 20, with a long of 64 yards and an average of nearly 50 per punt. Graham is one of the quietest special teams MVP candidates in the league.
Darnell Dockett had 3 sacks. In big games, big time players make big time plays. Again, this was against the team that had allowed the fewest sacks in the league this season.
Tim Hightower ran hard, averaged five yards per carry, scored a TD, and displayed his smash-mouth style by making Titans defenders pay for coming into contact with him. He accounted for 78 total yards on 14 touches.
Karlos Dansby did one heck of a job in run coverage. Yeah, that's right, run coverage. That’s what you call it when you are playing against Chris Johnson.
Anquan Boldin made several highlight reel catches.
Antrel Rolle, Michael Adams, and Adrian Wilson should all get a mention for helping set the tone of the game with devastating hits.
You can't call a loss a character win, but you can still win character in a loss.
Don't hang your heads for too long, Cardinal fans. To do so would overlook what a fantastic game Arizona just played.