With another close game hanging in the balance early in the fourth quarter Sunday, it was fitting that Cardinals running back James Conner was on the sideline with a shin injury.

At least the injury was an original one. During a season where it’s hard to keep track of all the body parts that have been affected, a shin problem was the first.

Of course, the Cardinals inventing new ways to lose wasn’t, so it became just another chapter in this never-ending story that will mercifully end next Sunday in Santa Clara, Calif., against the 49ers.

It’s possible the league will place the game on Saturday where there will be an ESPN/ABC simulcast of two games, but it’s difficult to imagine that happening considering the choices there will be for games that have significant playoff implications.

In the last two seasons, the Cardinals have played the Rams and Seahawks on the final weekend in important games, but that’s not the case this year, although the 49ers have a chance to be the No. 1 seed in the NFC.

The Conner injury was simply another ignominy in this bizarre season as the Cardinals dropped to 4-12 thanks to a 21-yard field goal by Younghoe Koo as time expired. He was one of only three projected starters (tackle Kelvin Beachum and wide receiver Marquise Brown were the others) at the beginning of the season to start and then he wasn’t available in the final quarter.

To that point, he had rushed for 79 yards on 16 attempts and added 31 yards on three receptions.

The Cardinals led 16-14 and were at their own 15-yard line late in the third quarter when Conner had a 12-yard pass play from gutsy quarterback David Blough. He ran for one yard on the next play, and that’s the one where it is believed he was injured.

Still, Blough connected with Brown on a 19-yard play to end the quarter.

While Blough took some deep shots, often overthrowing his mostly covered receivers, the potential game-changer came on the first play of the final 15 minutes. Blough had a wide-open tight end Trey McBride, who had seven catches for 78 yards and his first career touchdown, down the field, but the pass was too far.

A two-yard loss followed on a sack, but on third-and-12, Blough found wide receiver Greg Dortch, who nearly made the first down but wound up one yard short at the Falcons 44-yard line.

There was no doubt coach Kliff Kingsbury would decide to go for the first down. The question was what the play-call would be with Conner unavailable.

It was running back Corey Clement up the middle for no gain and the Cardinals turned the ball over on downs. With rookie Keaontay Ingram rarely on the field, Clement did have 11 yards on three attempts before that and had done an excellent job picking up blitzes.

After the Falcons went ahead 17-16 on the next possession, Clement was instrumental in the drive that got the lead back. He ran for eight yards on third-and-1 from the Cardinals 48-yard line and two plays later bolted 12 yards to the Atlanta 32.

That’s where this team’s habit of shooting themselves in the foot reared its ugly head again. On first down, right guard Will Hernandez was flagged for being illegally downfield and then a 6-yard run by Blough was wiped out by the second holding call of the game on left tackle Josh Jones.

The first came on the game’s opening possession and wiped out a 7-yard Conner run to the Falcons 3-yard line. Matt Prater gave the Cardinals a 3-0 lead on a 38-yard field goal. Jones also let pass rusher Anthony Nelson come clean on the team’s first possession Christmas night against Tampa Bay on a play from the Bucs’ 13-yard line.

Easy points were lost when quarterback Trace McSorley was blasted for a sack-fumble and linebacker Devin White recovered. Jones will be entering the final season of his contract in 2023 after being a third-round pick in 2020 and he’s playing only because D.J. Humphries is out for the season because of a back injury.

The penalties made it a tall task to regroup and add a touchdown for what would have been a 23-17 lead, but Prater did provide the Cardinals with a 19-17 lead on a 57-yard field goal despite holder Andy Lee saving the play by handling the erratic snap by new long snapper Hunter Bradley, who was signed this week after Aaron Brewer was placed on reserve/injure because of pectoral surgery.

Bradley’s parents surprised him by driving from Tampa for the game. They didn’t see their son at his best. His snaps were often low and not as crisp as Brewer, and one resulted in a missed 43-yard Prater attempt.

He did have an accurate snap to Lee on a punt in the second quarter, but unfortunately he appeared to be part of a protection breakdown that led to the punt being blocked and recovered at the Cardinals 5-yard line. That led to a quick touchdown.

Prater refused to put too much onus on Bradley, saying afterward, “Considering we’ve only been working together a short time and it was only the second or third time we’ve kicked together, it went alright.”

Still, after Prater’s go-ahead kick, there was 4:57 remaining and the defense needed a stop. That wasn’t to be. Just as it wasn’t against Tampa Bay last week and the Chargers on Thanksgiving weekend. Perhaps the Cardinals had that giving spirit on the three holiday weekends.

In the third quarter Sunday, the defense had stepped up, limiting the Falcons to 34 yards on 12 plays and only two first downs. The fourth quarter was a different story.

Atlanta totaled 108 yards on 21 plays and moved the chains for seven third downs. They had 13 during the other three quarters.

The back-breakers on the final possession were a 22-yard run by Cordarrelle Patterson to the Cardinals 46-yard line and a third-and-7 completion for 14 yards to the Arizona 13-yard line from quarterback Desmond Ridder to tight end MyCole Pruitt.

At that point, there was 1:53 remaining in the game after the Cardinals used their second timeout.

That’s where the Cardinals should have been considering allowing the Falcons to score a touchdown. Instead, running back Tyler Allgeier ran for eight yards on the first two plays, the Cardinals used their final timeout and even had the defense stopped Allgeier from getting a first down on third-and-2, the Falcons could have bled the clock to 20 seconds before kicking the winning field goal.

Letting the Falcons score a touchdown to go ahead by five points would have left about 1:45 on the clock. Would it have been unlikely to move 75 yards for a touchdown? Absolutely. But at that point, doing it was the only path to victory. Might Allgeier have gone to the ground when he realized what the Cardinals were doing? Perhaps. But at least try.

Perhaps that’s nitpicking after a game in which Blough completed 24 of 40 passes for 222 yards and an 83.5 passer rating with one day of practice. Or after defensive end J.J. Watt, in the penultimate game of his career, added a sack to give him 10.5 for the season and 112.5 in his career. He did have only one tackle, which was for a loss, and was penalized twice for neutral-zone violations.

Watt was hard on himself, saying, “I played like shit. I put us in a very tough spot. I put a lot of blame on myself for this one.”

Blough said, “It’s frustrating to lose. My job is to help us win the football game and we didn’t do enough. We had to settle for too many field goals and at the end of the day, that’s on me and our shoulders as an offense.”

It’s been a winding road for Blough, who continues to have the belief he can be a starter in the NFL.

“I started five games in Detroit and that didn’t end like I wanted them to,” he said. “I knew then my best football was in front of me and I hope as a player I have gotten better every year and learned from different people. There’s a lot of people who helped me stand here today before you all, and there is a lot of work that needs to be done to keep getting better. I believe my best football is in front of me still and I am just thankful for an opportunity because they don’t come around every day in this league.”

Kingsbury said of Blough, “He battled. He’s only been here two weeks; he didn’t have a chance to practice much last week – he got reps Friday – and I thought he handled himself well. I was impressed.”

The Cardinals tried valiantly to get a victory for themselves and Watt. However, at the end of the day, it was simply another example of an injury-compromised team that lost its second one-point game of the season in the final seconds and is now 2-6 in one-score games.

Snap shots

More injuries suffered in the game were to safety Jalen Thompson, linebacker/safety Isaiah Simmons, defensive lineman Jonathan Ledbetter and Brown (arm). Thompson and Simmons returned, but it appeared that rookie defensive lineman Manny Jones got a significant number of snaps with Ledbetter sidelined. Brown left in the fourth quarter.

Kingsbury said he doesn’t know if wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins will play in the season finale because of a knee injury, but despite persistent speculation that he might not be with the team in 2023, insisted he believes Hopkins will remain with the Cardinals. Of course, what else can he say? The way the coaching staff talks about evaluating for next year, it’s fair to wonder whether Kingsbury has been told he will return. That might not be the case, but we will surely know next week.

As for Hopkins, he left practice Friday with what Kingsbury called “a little bit of a knee” problem and was ruled out Saturday. After Sunday’s game, Kingsbury said, “His knee was acting up, the one he had surgery on. We just need to be cautious and not put him in harm’s way at that point.

“He’s a guy who can make plays for you, we’ve seen it this year, with some of the quarterback issues, we haven’t been able to utilize him as much as we would have liked, but he’s a guy who has been a big part of this offense. Unfortunately, he’s missed some games in the last two years, but we know what he looks like when he’s healthy and rolling.”

How crazy has this season been? Sunday, at some point after the inactive list was submitted, tight end Stephen Anderson became ill and was unable to play, leaving the Cardinals a man short. Anderson is a backup, but plays a significant number of snaps on special teams.

The quotebook

Conner on the loss: “(Today) doesn’t sink us. You can’t win them all.”

Really? Since being 10-2 last season, the Cardinals are 5-17, including the playoff loss to the Rams.

Blough on playing for Kingsbury: “Man, Kliff called a great game. He was in my headset all day helping me. He’s an unbelievable coach, offensive mind. To have him walking me through everything that we can get to at the line of scrimmage, made my job easy. I think I told you all the other day, it’s my job to go to the right place with the football and I wanted to prove that I could do that.

“He has been unbelievable for me. The way he sees the game, the way he breaks it down. I know I am the fourth quarterback in four weeks, I get it, it’s not an ideal situation. It’s not ideal for anybody. He has done an unbelievable job not flinching and helping me get up to speed and just being able to go out and operate. We had a chance to win it.”

Don’t hesitate to comment or ask questions on Twitter @hbalzer721 or email me: howard@gophnx.com



Howard Balzer is in his 47th year covering professional football as a writer, editor and broadcaster and has covered 41 Super Bowls. His connection with pro football began in 1976 with College and Pro Football Newsweekly, and since then he has been a featured columnist for The Sporting News, Pro Football Weekly, USA Today Sports Weekly and The Sports Xchange. Balzer moved to St. Louis in 1978 to work for The Sporting News, where he became Pro Football Editor in 1979. He was an analyst on ESPN's initial broadcast of the NFL Draft in 1980 and continued in that role through 1988. He has won seven writing awards in the Professional Football Writers of America competition, won an Emmy for commentaries on KPLR-TV in St. Louis in 1986 and was nominated for an Emmy in 1988 and 1990. He was named the 2016 winner of the Bob Broeg Media Award presented by the St. Louis/Tom Lombardo Chapter of the National Football Foundation and College Hall of Fame. The award is for enthusiasm, integrity, professionalism and devotion to the game of football and is reserved for individuals whose contributions to football in the St. Louis area have made a significant difference. Balzer was an officer (secretary and secretary/treasurer) for the Professional Football Writers of America for 33 years and was inducted into the St. Louis Jewish Sports Hall of Fame in 2010. Balzer relocated to the Phoenix area in 2020 as the publisher of the FanNation AllCardinals site and is now the Cardinals reporter for PHNX. He is entering his 19th year as one of 49 voting members on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and is also on the Hall's Seniors Committee. He is the co-host of the weekly Pro Football Hall of Fame radio show on SiriusXM NFL Radio and is a part-time host at ArizonaSports 98.7 FM.