Late mistakes undo good effort in Cardinals’ loss to Falcons

ATLANTA — The New Year began the same way last year started for the Cardinals — with a devastating loss.

Make no mistake, Sunday’s 20-19 defeat here to Falcons at Mercedes-Benz Stadium wasn’t nearly as ugly or embarrassing as that shuddering 34-11 NFC wild card loss to the Rams was last January.

But considering how well the Cardinals were playing without so many of their best players and how they were in this game from start to nearly finish, they felt they deserved a win. It could have easily gone that way, too, except the Falcons drove 72 yards on 12 plays inside the final five minutes and won it on Younghoe Koo’s 21-yard field goal.

It was another punch in the gut to the Cardinals, who dropped their sixth straight game, fell to 4-12 and have one game remaining next week at the 49ers before the roster gets reworked and perhaps, major changes could be afoot.

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It didn’t have to end like this, though. Not really. Despite playing with a bunch of backups and journeymen, the Cardinals we moving the ball on offense, they were finding way to get it done, defensively, and they had their chances to extend what had been a 16-14 lead six minutes into the third quarter.

In addition to rolling out their fourth-string quarterback, David Blough, who got the starting assignment over third-stringer Trace McSorley, the Cardinals were without their leading tackler, safety Budda Baker (fractured shoulder), their No.1 wide receiver in DeAndre Hopkins (knee) and their top three cornerbacks, Byron Murphy Jr. (back), Marco Wilson (neck) and Antonio Hamilton (back).

Still, they made this game more than just a little interesting.

Blough, making his first start since his rookie year with the Lions in 2019, led the Cardinals on a 14-play, game-opening drive that resulted in a 38-yard field goal by Matt Prater. Later, after the Falcons went ahead of Tyler Allgeier’s 5-yard touchdown run, Arizona’s defense responded.

After the Cardinals’ downed Andy Lee’s punt at the Falcons’ 9-yard line, rookie quarterback Desmond Ridder fumbled the snap from center. Nose tackle Leki Fotu jumped on it. After a short run by James Conner, Blough hit rookie tight end Trey McBride for 4-yard touchdown.

It was a deceptive play call as McBride faked a block, Blough rolled out to his right and connected on an easy pass to the tight end. McBride almost fell short of the goal line but dove over the line for his first career TD and Blough’s first since Dec. 22, 2019.

This is still the Cardinals’ offense we’re talking about here so yes, of course, there were some troubling moments. Arizona had a great chance to keep the momentum going after the Falcons turned the football over on downs but there was no imagination — and nothing open — on three consecutive play calls and it forced Lee to punt from the goal line.

Richie Grant came flying in on stunt to block the kick and he also recovered it at the Cardinals’ 5-yard line. Cordarrelle Patterson ran it up the middle for a touchdown on the next play.

Blough and the Arizona offense, however, went on two more nice scoring drives. The first covered 61 yards, the second 81 yards and both ended in easy field goals for Prater and a 16-14 lead for the Cardinals with nine minutes left in the third.

Then, Cardinals’ things began happening to the Cardinals.

They had a chance to tack on more points on their next possession, but it ended with Prater missing a 43-yarder wide left. They drove 41 yards on eight plays the next, but on fourth down and Conner riding a stationary bike on the sideline and not lined up in the backfield, Corey Clement was stuffed for no gain and the Falcons took over.

Prater and Koo exchanged field goals after that, but those two possessions beforehand were dooming and the Falcons marched their way down when it mattered for the final three points to end it.

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