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NFL matchup pits dysfunctional against disappointed
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By Bob Baum

GLENDALE, Ariz. - This disjointed, dysfunctional season can't end fast enough for the Atlanta Falcons.

The Arizona Cardinals at least have a goal of finishing .500 if they beat the Falcons on Sunday and follow that up with a season-ending win at home over St. Louis. Atlanta, on the other hand, is like some battered prize fighter going down for the count.

No wonder.

The Falcons (3-11) endured the conviction of their star quarterback on dogfighting-related charges, then their coach walked out on them to take a college job two weeks ago.

And just when they thought Bill Parcells was coming on board to try to right the severely listing ship, he backed out and went to Miami instead.

"This is weird," Falcons running back Warrick Dunn said. "I don't think you can ever script this, write this, make a movie out of this."

The goal for the final two weeks, he said, is "not necessarily winning games."

"We have to be professionals and go out and do your job and take care of your business," Dunn said. "We weren't able to do that last week. Hopefully we can try and just really play some good football and not get embarrassed."

Perhaps the Cardinals' depleted, crumbling defense can boost Atlanta's morale.

Last week in New Orleans, Drew Brees completed 26 of 30 passes for 315 yards and two touchdowns as the Saints beat Arizona 31-24 to eliminate the Cardinals from playoff contention. The previous week, Matt Hasselbeck was 22-of-33 for 272 yards and four scores when Seattle clinched the NFC West in a 42-21 victory over Arizona. The Cardinals didn't intercept either quarterback.

Arizona (6-8) sorely misses defensive end Bertrand Berry, cornerback Eric Green and especially Pro Bowl safety Adrian Wilson - all out with season-ending injuries. But coach Ken Whisenhunt won't use injuries as an excuse.

"We've had our moments," he said. "Obviously, we haven't been able to finish the way we wanted to defensively after we started off so well. Some of it's playing against good teams. Some of it is us being close and not making plays."

The Falcons stagger in on a five-game losing streak. The day after a 34-14 Monday night home loss to New Orleans on Dec. 10, first-year coach Bobby Petrino abruptly left the team to go to Arkansas.

The players were livid, saying they felt betrayed.

"I'm trying to just let it go," Dunn said. "We all were emotionally exhausted because of it, and right now it's the past. We just have to try to move forward and figure out a way to play good football."

With Petrino gone, and longtime assistant Emmitt Thomas taking over as interim coach, Atlanta was routed at Tampa Bay 37-3 last weekend.

"You keep stressing to them that they're pros," Thomas said. "They get paid real well. Regardless of what happens upstairs or on the outside, we can't control that. We have to put our emotions and what we're thinking in check and concentrate on the job at hand and go out and compete."

This week, there was a glimmer of positive news when Parcells seemed on the brink of joining owner Arthur Blank and the Atlanta organization to direct the rebuilding of the team. But that didn't work out, either.

"I feel sorry for Mr. Blank in that situation," said Whisenhunt, who interviewed for the Atlanta job before being hired by the Cardinals last offseason. "It's tough. I guess you can add another chapter to a turbulent year for them."

Chris Redman will get his third straight start at quarterback for the Falcons ahead of Joey Harrington and Byron Leftwich.

Redman was 4-of-15 for 34 yards and was intercepted twice last week as Atlanta managed just 133 yards against Tampa's tough defense.

Cardinals standout wide receivers Larry Fitzgerald (sore groin) and Anquan Boldin (dislocated toe) were limited in practice this week, but probably will play. Fitzgerald, named to his second Pro Bowl on Tuesday, has touchdown catches in each of the last five games.

If Arizona finishes 8-8, it would be just the third time since 1984 that the Cardinals have not had a losing season. Finishing with two victories might provide some momentum for next season, too.

"If you look at some of the teams that were successful this year, they ended on a good note last year, Green Bay being one of them," Boldin said. "So, I do think finishing on a positive note is big."