GLENDALE - The Arizona Cardinals are a much improved football team, but they still have some work to do to join the NFL’s elite.
Playing against the high-powered New York Giants Sunday on their home turf at University of Phoenix Stadium, the Cardinals fell short as the Super Bowl champions took full advantage of two long kickoff returns by Domenik Hixon in the first half and two Kurt Warner turnovers in the second half to post a 37-29 victory.
Despite the loss, Arizona still remains firmly in control of the NFC West with a record of 7-4, four games in front of the second-place San Francisco 49ers. But its inability to stop the Giants (11-1) in the second half could ultimately cost them playoff seeding when the postseason begins.
Both quarterbacks put up big offensive numbers. The Giants' Eli Manning completed 26 of 33 passes for 240 yards and three touchdowns, while Warner connected on 32 of his 52 pass attempts for 351 yards, including a touchdown to Anquan Boldin. But while Manning - who was named the Super Bowl MVP in his last trip to Glendale back in February - did not commit a turnover, Warner had an interception and fumble that led to New York touchdowns.
"Well obviously that was a tough loss for us today," said Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt. "This is a well-coached football team with a tremendous amount of depth that doesn't make many mistakes. To me, that was the key today. We just made too many mistakes. I can't be proud enough of our guys the way they fought and didn't give up."
It was an uphill battle for the Cardinals the entire second half.
New York extended a five-point halftime lead to 24-12 early in the third quarter on a 2-yard touchdown pass from Manning to fullback Madison Hedgecock. The Giants had to go only 40 yards for the score after Justin Tuck stripped Warner of the football on the first possession of the third quarter.
The Cardinals were able to momentarily claw their way back in it, putting together an impressive 12-play, 90-yard drive later in the quarter, and scoring on a 1-yard Tim Hightower touchdown run to make it 24-19. But New York next went on a 10-play, 80-yard drive, and scored on a 10-yard touchdown pass from Manning to Kevin Boss with 11:15 left in the game. Then after a Warner interception, the Giants added a 27-yard John Carney field goal to go up 34-19.
Arizona drew within eight on a 5-yard Warner-to-Boldin touchdown pass with 4:02 left to play. The Cardinals then nearly executed a perfect onside kick. Neil Rackers’ kick bounced high and landed just past the necessary 10 yards. Waiting for the bounce was the Cardinals’ Ralph Brown, but the ball went through Brown’s hands and the Giants recovered.
The Giants tacked on 33-yard Carney field goal just after the two minute warning to ice the victory. The Cardinals got a 44-yard Rackers field goal with 32 seconds left, but could not recover the ensuing onside kick.
Warner assessed afterward that the miscues were tough to overcome. "When you're talking about one of the best teams in the NFL, it's tough to do, especially where we're at as a football team. We're not in a position where we can do that kind of stuff. I think guys still fought, guys played hard," he said. "We gave ourselves chances all throughout the game. But it is tough to overcome those things."
The first half saw the lead go back and forth.
After forcing the Giants to punt on their first possession, the Cardinals engineered a 13-play, 63-yard drive the first time they had the ball and scored the game's first points on a 34-yard Rackers field goal. New York then went ahead on a 2-yard touchdown run by Derrick Ward early in the second quarter after marching 62 yards on 11 plays.
But Arizona quickly regained the lead, 9-7, on a 4-yard touchdown run by Hightower midway through the second quarter. The Cardinals missed a two-point conversion attempt however, when punter Dirk John overthrew Calais Campbell after the team lined up as though they were going to kick the extra point.
The Giants went back up, 10-9, on a 33-yard field goal by Carney with 6:51 remaining in the first half. It was set up by an 83-yard kickoff return by Hixon, who averaged 60 yards on three returns.
But once again the Cardinals answered quickly to regain the lead, driving 49 yards on six plays and scoring on a 20-yard Rackers field goal.
The Giants were able to capitalize on another huge Hixon kickoff return - this time 68 yards - and pulled back in front on a 12-yard touchdown pass from Manning to Amani Toomer a minute before halftime.
Neither team mustered much yardage on the ground. The Giants carried the ball 27 times for 87 yards, while Arizona compiled a paltry 23 yards rushing.
"You can't take anything away from them. They're a good team and found a way to win," said Hightower, who had only 21 rushing yards to go with his two touchdowns. "We had our chances and in these tough games when you're facing good teams, you've got to be right in everything you're doing."
New York played without starting running back Brandon Jacobs, who is nursing an injured knee, and was also without wide receiver Plaxico Burress for most of the day after he aggravated a hamstring injury early in the first quarter and did not return. The Giants defeated the New England Patriots at University of Phoenix Stadium back on February 3, 2008, in an epic Super Bowl XLII game, 17-14.
"Tough ball game, we knew it would be," said New York head coach Tom Coughlin. "The Cardinals have a good team and they played well. We played well. We had two of our normal starters out of the game tonight but the guys rose up and played well tonight. Eli played very, very well. The game was back and forth, back and forth from the very get go."
The Cardinals have never won a division title since moving to Arizona, so the fact that they’re jockeying for playoff position this early in the season is completely foreign to an organization that has only made the playoffs once since arriving in the desert in 1988. They have a short week in front of them and will visit the Philadelphia Eagles for a Thanksgiving evening game Thursday. With a win, the Cardinals would clinch the NFC West.
"We have a tough team and we've done a good job with bouncing back, so hopefully we'll be okay for this game," said Whisenhunt.
New York plays at the Washington Redskins next Sunday.