Actually, they were assured their first non-losing season since that same year, regardless of the outcome, having won their 8th game last week. The Cardinals' chances for that elusive winning season was bolstered by QB Philip Rivers being scratched late in the week after bruising his hand in practice on Thursday. With the Chargers out of contention for a playoff spot, the coaching staff was reluctant to put their future on the field with any type of injury. Instead, they would insert QB A.J. Feeley into the starting role for the season finale.
Contrary to what may have been thought prior to the game, Feeley was able to bring some game to the match-up and he brought it quickly. On the first San Diego offensive drive and after two RB LaDanian Tomlinson rushes that were stopped for short gains, Feeley found WR Keenan McCardell for a 33-yard strike. He followed that up with a deep pass across the middle to TE Antonio Gates for the first TD of the day, putting the Chargers up 7-0 early.
The Cardinals offense responded to this challenge all game long as the San Diego defensive unit seemed to be a step behind all day. QB Matt Leinart opened things up for his unit with a 25-yard laser to TE Leonard Pope and then another to WR Anquan Boldin for another 20 yards. RB Edgerrin James did not have a terrible season to this point – 310 rushes for 1096 yards – but he had his best game of the season on the final outing. He would finish the first drive with a 42-yard scamper on a delayed handoff to tie the game at 7; he would finish the game with a whopping 229 yards on 28 carries.
Before the season, many a Cardinals fan envisioned week after week of what was finally seen in Week 17: an old-fashioned shootout. Both teams had their offenses running in overdrive, and the scoreboard as well as the stat sheet proved it. As a matter of fact, neither team would punt the ball in the first half. Only twice did the teams face a 4th down – one each – and both times it occurred was inside the 2 yard line. In each case, the offense converted the try for a TD. By halftime, the score was already 27-24 Arizona.
The second half started off sluggishly, as it momentarily appeared as though the defenses had caught their collective breaths. Each unit forced their offensive counterparts into 3-and-outs and into punting situations. After this initial stumbling, however, the offenses got themselves back on track. For Arizona, a flea-flicker was just what the doctor ordered to get them back into the scoring mode, as WR Larry Fitzgerald was able to get behind the secondary for the 64-yard score. With how well James was rushing, the Chargers' defense were easily fooled into drawing down to support the run defense. This made for an early-career day for Leinart, who would finish the day with 355 yards on 28-42 passing for 3 TD, as the coaching staff called for a lot of play-action.
The Chargers also continued their high-octane offensive scoring attack throughout the last two stanzas. Or at least until their final possession, that is. After taking over at their own 36, down by 4 with 1:17 left in the game, they quickly moved the ball to the Cardinals 27 on 4 plays. With 46 seconds and no timeouts remaining, Feeley completed his last pass of the day to Tomlinson in the middle of the field at the 4 yard line. With time ticking down and confusion at the line of scrimmage, the ball was snapped. Instead of throwing the ball away or spiking it to stop the clock, Feeley tried to turn the broken play into a scoring one, making a dash for the goal line off the right side. He never saw LB Karlos Dansby, who had an angle on the play, and was promptly de-cleated. The subsequent fumble was recovered by LB James Darling, giving the Cardinals their first winning season since 1998.
Cardinals win 44-40.
With the season over, the Cardinals can now focus on plugging their defensive holes. It appears that they are set for the future on offense with the like of Arrington, Leinart, and the Rookie of the Year candidate, Leonard Pope. The defensive secondary is aging though and will need serious upgrades if the Redbirds want to be in real contention for titles. The same could be said for their defensive line that was sometimes extremely porous, putting an undue amount of stress on the linebacking corps, which was easily the highlight of their defensive unit. Of course, special teams will need some improvement as well, as the average starting position for the Arizona offense this year was the 21 yard line. Overall though, Arizona fans have to be pleased that for only the second time since 1984, the Cardinals won more games than they lost. At least it's an encouraging starting point and will hopefully be built upon in 2007.