Kent Somers
The Arizona Republic
Dec. 13, 2004 12:00 AM

The Cardinals vowed to learn a valuable lesson from their loss to San Francisco in early October, when they imploded in the final minutes and lost in overtime.

And they did. On Sunday, they stumbled around early, rather than late, frantically overcame a 25-point deficit in the second half but then lost in overtime 31-28.

San Francisco has two victories this season, both in overtime over the same team by the same score. Kicker Todd Peterson ended both with field goals, his 31-yarder Sunday just a yard shorter than his one in October. advertisement

"They came back on us almost like we did the last time we played them," ***** coach Dennis Erickson said.

The Cardinals' playoff hopes have been harder to shed than a bad reputation, but Sunday's loss in front of 35,069 at Sun Devil Stadium surely did it. The loss dropped them to 4-9, extended their losing streak to four and assured them of a losing season, their 15th in 17 seasons in Arizona.

"I don't know if there's even a lesson in this one," defensive end Bertrand Berry said. "It's a tough one to accept."

The Cardinals concocted a marinade full of mistakes, many of them on special teams. Karl Williams mishandled a punt, leading to a ***** touchdown. Kicker Neil Rackers missed a 34-yard field goal. A penalty on an attempted field goal kept a ***** drive alive, and a block in the back on a kickoff return gave the Cardinals poor field position.

And all of that happened in the first 11 minutes. It was an excruciatingly slow, incompetent start.

"I'm at fault," coach Dennis Green said of the team's poor play in the first half. "I'm the head coach, so I'm at fault."

When the ***** opened the second half with a 69-yard touchdown drive, their 28-3 lead looked insurmountable.

Maybe it was the incredible embarrassment looming, but something seemed to click with the Cardinals. The defense held the ***** scoreless on five straight possessions. And the offense started to move, putting together touchdown drives of 87, 53 and 56 yards.

Just like that, it was 28-25, with the Cardinals marching for the possible victory.

Cornerback David Macklin's fumble recovery gave them the ball at the ***** 20 with 2:16 remaining, and they quickly moved to the 4.

There, quarterback Josh McCown saw tight end Freddie Jones, open in the end zone.

"I didn't think I could get any more wide open," Jones said. "I looked back and all I could see was the ball coming. I said, 'Oh yeah, that's game time. That's game time.' "

But ***** cornerback Joselio Hanson came off his man, receiver Bryant Johnson, to knock the ball away, and the Cardinals settled for a 22-yard field goal that sent the game into overtime.

"If you've ever had anything stole from you, that's what it felt like," Jones said. "I couldn't tell you who the dude was that knocked the ball down, but I do know that he just rained on my parade."

McCown, making his first start since being benched three weeks ago, played well most of the day, completing 26 of 44 passes for 307 yards, a career high. But he'd like a mulligan on the pass to Jones.

"I probably should have gotten a little more zip on it," he said.

"To his (Hanson's) credit, he made a heck of a play, saved the ballgame for them."

The ***** won the toss to get the ball first in overtime and moved it far enough that a punt pinned the Cardinals at their 3. They gained just 4 yards before they punted, and the ***** took over at the Arizona 49.

A sack by Berry nearly stopped them there. But on third and 17, quarterback Ken Dorsey found receiver Cedrick Wilson for 19 yards. Macklin and safety Ifeanyi Ohalete were close but couldn't converge in time.

"It was just bad coverage," Green said.

The ***** quickly moved to the Arizona 13, and Erickson had seen enough. On first down, he sent in Peterson for the game winner.

The Cardinals insisted there was no embarrassment in providing the ***** their only victories this season.

"Regardless of if they were 1-11," tackle Darnell Dockett said, "they get paid, too. You can't forget that."