SAN FRANCISCO — The Arizona Cardinals huddled around televisions in the visitors' locker room at Candlestick Park late Sunday afternoon to watch the Minnesota Vikings clinch a playoff berth with a game-winning field goal against Green Bay. Faint cheers could be heard from across the hall of the San Francisco 49ers celebrating a first-round playoff bye, setting the scene for how Arizona will be spending January again.
As postseason spectators.
The Cardinals closed the season losing 11 of their last 12 games, capping off three miserable months with a 27-13 defeat to the NFC West champion 49ers. Whether coach Ken Whisenhunt returns for the final year of his deal is unclear, and so is so much else about the future of the franchise, except that there will likely be big changes – and soon.
"We haven't won enough games this year. That's the bottom line," Whisenhunt said. "It doesn't matter that you had injuries, that you had changes in personnel, playing rookies. Ultimately, that's the way it goes. But our guys played hard all year, and I'm proud of that. But it's not something I can control."
Near the top of Arizona's to-do list will be quarterback.
Brian Hoyer, the fourth starter for Arizona this season, completed 19 of 34 passes for 225 yards with an interception and a late TD toss to Michael Floyd in his first career start. The Cardinals (5-11) claimed Hoyer off waivers from Pittsburgh just three weeks ago, and he relieved Ryan Lindley in a loss to Chicago a week earlier before filling in for the finale.
"I know it's been a long year," said Hoyer, who will also be a free agent. "I've only been here three weeks, and I know how disappointing it feels to me to lose this game. I can only imagine for those guys."
Just who will be in charge of the decisions also is uncertain.
Cardinals President Michael Bidwill had said he would evaluate the situation after the season ended. General manager Rod Graves also might be gone. If Whisenhunt is retained, some of his assistants almost certainly won't.
Even some of the most tenured and decorated veterans are among those wondering what's next.
"I don't know what to expect. I really don't," said wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald, who caught 71 passes for 798 yards this season, his lowest total since he had 780 yards receiving his rookie year in 2004. "I'll be listening and watching what's going to happen myself."
San Francisco showed just how far away Arizona is in a division that only seems to be getting better.
Michael Crabtree caught touchdown passes of 49 and 7 yards and finished with a career-high 172 yards receiving, Colin Kaepernick threw for a career-best 276 yards and two TDs and the Niners (11-4-1) did their part to control their postseason fate. Then they waited about 15 minutes to watch Minnesota beat Green Bay, giving San Francisco the NFC's No. 2 seed and a week off before hosting a divisional playoff game for the second straight season.
Frank Gore ran for a 2-yard score early in the fourth quarter for his franchise-best 51st touchdown rushing, breaking a tie with mentor Roger Craig and late Hall of Famer Joe Perry. Crabtree's outstanding outing was the best by a 49ers receiver since Terrell Owens' 166-yard performance on Nov. 25, 2002, against Philadelphia.
The Cardinals outgained the 49ers 129-15 in the opening quarter and held San Francisco without a first down. Jay Feely kicked two field goals to give Arizona a 6-0 lead before the 49ers ran away with the win.
"Today's game kind of mirrored our season," Whisenhunt said. "We started out well and did some things good. Couldn't do enough early against a good football team, and then we made mistakes in the second half that really hurt us. "
Hoyer exhibited poise in the early moments.
The former New England backup and Michigan State quarterback completed seven of his first 13 passes, including three straight – for 7, 15 and 12 yards – to set up Feely's 35-yard field goal late in the first quarter. Feely added a 31-yarder early in the second, but that lead didn't last long.
The Cardinals ended a six-game stretch without a touchdown pass when Hoyer hit Floyd on a 37-yard strike late in the fourth quarter.
Arizona pounded the ball toward the right side of San Francisco's defensive line where Pro Bowler Justin Smith had been stout against the run all season before getting hurt two weeks ago. But Hoyer, who replaced the benched Ryan Lindley in last week's 28-13 home loss to the Bears, couldn't make enough plays against San Francisco's stingy defense.
"I think we kind of shocked them coming out," Hoyer said. "They didn't expect us to give them what we had. You'd obviously like to finish it off on a better note than that."
Notes: Whisenhunt said RB Beanie Wells didn't play because the team had practiced certain schemes that fit William Powell better and once Powell got going early he wanted to stick with him. Powell finished with 14 carries for 52 yards. ... Pro Bowl CB Patrick Peterson was lost to a left hamstring injury in the fourth quarter. RG Pat McQuistan was sidelined in the first with an ankle injury and didn't return. LB Paris Lenon injured his left hand in the second half.