Glendale, Ariz. — Many of the problems the Lions overcame with magical comebacks the last three games finally cost them Sunday against the Cardinals as they lost 14-6 at University of Phoenix Stadium.
The premature talk of the playoffs that surrounded the Lions will be put on hold after a game in which the offense sputtered from beginning to end and the defense allowed touchdowns on Cardinals' first two drives.
"At the onset we just weren't sharp enough — plain and simple," coach Jim Caldwell said.
The Lions have lost eight straight games in Arizona with the last win in 1993, and Sunday's game was the first time they finished without a touchdown since Dec. 27, 2009.
Now, Arizona (9-1) is in prime position to contend for the No. 1 seed in the NFC while the Lions (7-3) lost control of their division as the Green Bay Packers (7-3) throttled the Philadelphia Eagles, 53-20. The Cardinals looked like the more complete team, out-gaining the Lions 352 yards to 262, and were much more as the Lions had nine penalties for 80 yards compared to Arizona's four for 35.
Lions coach says team did some things well despte 14-6 loss.
"We're poor in that area, and we've got to get it better," Caldwell said of the infractions. The Lions have had at least eight penalties in each of their last four games.
The Cardinals converted 8 of 14 third downs, including their first five, while the Lions went just 5 of 15.
A few questionable calls went against the Lions, but players didn't make excuses for the loss. In the fourth quarter, Jeremy Ross had a punt return to the Arizona 46, but after a Cardinals challenge, the ball was ruled down at the Detroit 1 because the officials ruled Justin Bethel had possession even though he pitched the ball back to his teammates, which led Ross to grab it and move it down the field.
Ross grabbed the ball before any Arizona players could, but the play that would've given the Lions great field position with 11:57 left was for naught.
Matthew Stafford, who led fourth-quarter comebacks the last three games, struggled with heavy pressure and finished 18 of 30 for 183 yard with one interception. He also took four sacks.
"We played a pretty good football team and a pretty good defense," Stafford said. "They've got talented guys. They've been a good defense all year, but we didn't help ourselves out.
"We had too many penalties and too many mental errors. If you do that against a good defense, you're not going to win."
Joique Bell ran well with 14 carries for 85 yards, but the passing game repeatedly set back the offense. Cardinals cornerbacks Patrick Peterson, Antonio Cromartie and Jerraud Powers had exceptional games, holding Calvin Johnson to five catches for 59 yards and Golden Tate to two catches for 41 yards. Tate didn't have a target in the second half.
"They weren't forcing me to look away," Stafford said when asked about Tate. "I'm just going through my progressions and trying to find open guys."
On the other side, former Lions quarterback Drew Stanton played well enough in place of Carson Palmer, who is out the rest of the year with a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his knee. Stanton finished 21 of 32 for 306 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions. He didn't suffer any sacks.
A second-round pick by the Lions in 2007, Stanton also welcomed a daughter last week.
"It's definitely up there with being one of the most memorable weeks," said Stanton, who spoke with Stafford and other Lions players extensively before kickoff.
The Cardinals offense was just about perfect to start the game. On the opening drive, Stanton hit Michael Floyd for a 42-yard touchdown on a play in which Floyd caught the ball in the end zone despite a pass interference penalty against cornerback Cassius Vaughn.
After the Lions started with a three-and-out, Arizona marched quickly again. After running back Robert Hughes gained 49 yards on a catch-and-run that included him running over safety James Ihedigbo, the Cardinals scored on a 12-yard pass from Stanton to Floyd.
The Lions scored on their next possession with a 50-yard field goal from Matt Prater, but he needed a bounce off the left upright to make the kick. With 2:46 left in the first quarter, the Lions trailed 14-3.
The Lions benefited from a few ill-advised passes from Stanton in the second quarter. The Cardinals had a first down at the Detroit 14, and the drive looked like easy points with how they'd moved in the first quarter. Instead, Stanton threw an interception right to linebacker Josh Bynes, the first of his career.
The Lions drove to the Arizona 37, but after a facemask on left guard Rob Sims cost them 15 yards, they couldn't turn the takeaway into points.
Two drives later, Stanton threw another interception, this time to Vaughn. The Lions turned this interception into a 28-yard field goal by Prater, which cut the deficit to 14-6 just before the end of the first half.
But the Lions had to settle for the field goal after tight end Eric Ebron was ruled short of the first down despite clearly possessing the ball ahead of the line to gain. After review, the refs upheld the call.
The defense held the Cardinals to just 122 yards in the second half, but the Lions offense couldn't take advantage of any opportunities. The Lions reached the red zone just once in the game and zero times in the second half.
"We just didn't get going consistently, didn't convert on third downs well enough and really just sputtered all day long," Caldwell said.
"It's like I told (the players), we still have all of our goals in front of us. This game only counts as one. It doesn't count as 15. We've got to get our guys together and go out there and work at it next week."