As roads to perfection go, the route the Arizona Cardinals took Sunday to a 4-0 record was about as remote as it gets.
The Miami Dolphins did everything but win the game, falling 24-21 on a 46-yard Jay Feely field goal in overtime as Arizona joined Atlanta and Houston as the NFL’s only 4-0 teams.
- The Dolphins sacked Cardinals quarterback Kevin Kolb eight times and intercepted two of his passes.
- They limited the Arizona running game to 28 yards and a 1.9 per-carry average.
- They got a 431-yard passing performance from rookie quarterback Ryan Tannehill while putting up 480 yards on the stellar Arizona defense.
- They shut down the Cardinals five first half possessions to the tune of four punts and a Sean Smith pick that set up a Dan Carpenter field goal on the final snap of the half.
- Their defense limited Kolb’s offense to 4 of 16 on third downs, including 0-for-4 in the fourth quarter.
- Their offense produced two receivers that accounted for 386 receiving yards and more than half of Tannehill’s 41 targets.
And they did what teams over the decades have done to beat the Cardinals: They led at halftime by at least 13 points.
The second of Carpenter’s two first-half field goals staked Miami to that 13-0 advantage at halftime. Had the stunned University of Phoenix Stadium crowd in Glendale known the Cardinals were 9-214-1 all-time when trailing by 13-or-more at half, they likely would have packed up and headed out into the oppressive Valley of the Sun heat.
In other words, this game was over. Miami had done everything right and Arizona had done nothing.
But Kolb, who struggled to just 56 yards and four first downs in those pitiful 18 first-half plays, was about to have the game of his short and unstable Cardinals life.
It started with a 3-yard touchdown pass to Larry Fitzgerald to narrow the deficit to 13-7 with 9:46 left in the third quarter. Almost exactly a quarter later, he connected with Andre Roberts on a 46-yard touchdown pass for a 14-13 lead with 9:45 left in the fourth quarter.
Tannehill responded, finding receiver Brian Hartline stunningly open along the left sideline that resulted in an 80-yard scoring play.
The rookie QB attempted 41 passes in the game, 19 of them were directed at Hartline, and another 12 were thrown toward Devon Bess. Hartline caught 12 of those passes for 253 yards. Finding him open at this point of the game, had to be as stunning to Tannehill as was his surprising success against what coming in was one of the league’s better defenses.
After Hartline’s touchdown, the Dolphins went for two and Tannehill’s pass to fullback Jorvorskie Lane on the conversion gave Miami a 21-14 lead with 7:05 remaining in regulation.
On the ensuing possession, rookie right tackle Bobby Massie was penalized for a false start before the first snap of the series. Then Kolb was sacked for a 9-yard loss. They wouldn’t overcome that second-and-24 hole at their 6-yard line and would be forced to punt the ball back to Miami with 5:14 remaining.
Tannehill then handed the ball to Reggie Bush. First for 7 yards, then for 15, then for 2 more. The Dolphins were into Arizona territory and running out the clock. Or so it seemed.
With 3 minutes left in regulation, Tannehill unwittingly dropped back to pass on second-and-8. Linebacker Daryl Washington blitzed. He sacked the rookie and jarred the ball free. Vonnie Holliday recovered and Kolb would get one last shot, taking possession at the Arizona 49 with 2:51 left.
But the Dolphins weren’t conceding anything. Linebacker Koa Misi sacked Kolb on first down and Misi and Cameron Wake split the sack on second down at the two-minute warning.
On third-and-18, Kolb found Roberts for 16 yards and then, on fourth-and-2 with the game on the line, he hit Roberts for nine more and a first down with 1:26 left.
Kolb then went to Fitzgerald for 9 and rookie Michael Floyd for 10 and another first down at the Miami 15 with 42 seconds remaining. But just when it appeared he had found a rhythm, Kolb missed on his next three passes and again he faced a fourth down with 29 seconds left and the game on the line.
Never easy, this road.
But Kolb found a way, connecting with Roberts. Feely’s PAT tied the score, 21-21, with 22 seconds left in regulation.
Arizona got the ball first in the overtime but went three-and-out. Tannehill then converted a first down and had the Dolphins moving when on third-and-6 from the Miami 38, he threw his 19th pass toward Hartline. Linebacker Paris Lenon had blitzed and hit Tannehill upon release and safety Kerry Rhodes intercepted the pass.
Kolb moved the offense 19 yards in seven plays setting up Feely’s game-winner. Kolb had failed on all four third-down conversion attempts in the fourth quarter and was just two of eight in the second half. But facing a third-and-8 at the Miami 45 here, he found Early Doucet for 10 yards for the first down. Three Ryan Williams runs got the Cards seven yards closer and Feely kicked the game-winner with 8:34 on the clock.
How ironic that a pass defense that had shut down Michael Vick the week before but had been abused all game by a rookie, would come up big when it mattered most. And that on this bumpy road of a journey, it would be a player named Rhodes — who had the two key turning point plays in that Week 3 victory over Philadelphia — who would rise up again for the Cardinals.
Kolb completed 29 of 48 passes for 324 yards and three TDs. Fitzgerald had eight receptions for 64 yards and one TD. Roberts had six catches for a career-high 118 yards and two TDs.
Williams, getting the bulk of the carries for the injured Beanie Wells, managed only 26 yards on 13 tries.
For Miami (2-2), Bess ended up with seven catches for 123 yards, Lane had a 1-yard touchdown run in the first quarter and Wake had 4.5 sacks.
As for the Cardinals, by whatever means necessary, they are not only 4-0 to start 2012 but 11-2 over their last 13 games. While not quite perfection, it’s still good enough to be the best in the NFL over that period.
Follow on Twitter @JD_Parenti.