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Fumble by Ryan Williams nearly dooms Cardinals

Cardinals running back Ryan Williams coughed up the ball with aboutaminute left to give the Patriots a chance to pull out the win, butamissed field goal got Williams off the hook.

BARRY CHIN/GLOBE STAFF

Cardinals running back Ryan Williams coughed up the ball with aboutaminute left to give the Patriots a chance to pull out the win, butamissed field goal got Williams off the hook.

FOXBOROUGH — Ryan Williams just didn’t want to cry. Not on TV. Not in front of everyone. He couldn’t help it, though. As the ball left Stephen Gostkowski’s foot, as it went wide left, the tears fell. And they were not exactly tears of happiness.

Gostkowski might have missed the winning kick, but it was Williams’s fumble that had given him the chance to make it.

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“This is going to be on my mind the rest of the season,” the running back said after the Cardinals hung on to beat the Patriots, 20-18, Sunday at Gillette Stadium. “We were able to get the win, but it’s something that’s not leaving.”

Williams, in his second season with the Cardinals, already had gone through a similar ending. He had lost a fumble allowing North Carolina to kick a winning field goal when he was playing for Virginia Tech in 2009. He didn’t want to see it happen again.

But for the Cardinals, that was not how it ended after the ball popped out of Williams’s hands, giving the Patriots possession at the Cardinals’ 30 with 1:01 to play. Instead, it ended with a missed field goal and a huge reprieve for Williams.

Williams credited Patriots linebacker Brandon Spikes for popping the ball loose with his helmet, calling it a “perfect hit. Crown on the ball, and they got what they wanted.”

Williams said short of falling down — “and I’m not going out that way,” he said — there was nothing he could have done.

“He’s definitely happy they missed the field goal,” Cardinals tight end Todd Heap said. “He got us a big first down on that drive, but he knows he almost cost us. When they missed that field goal, he was glad he wasn’t the last mistake.”

No, that belonged to Gostkowski. Though the Cardinals believed they had a hand in his miss.

“I think we put a lot of pressure on a lot of teams with our field-goal-block team,” Patrick Peterson said. “We create a lot of havoc for a lot of teams. We just want to continue putting pressure on field-goal teams so things like that can happen, so we can push it left.”

It was a crucial minute in the season of the Cardinals, a team that demonstrated tremendous defensive ability against the Patriots. It was a victory that Peterson said some Cardinals were describing as a statement win.

Not that they were all focusing on the positives after it was over.

“I didn’t like that it came that way,” coach Ken Whisenhunt said. “I’ve got a lot less hair because of that. I’m still traumatized from seeing the ball pop out.”

And though he said that the fumble was far more about what Spikes did than what Williams didn’t do, he also acknowledged that the second-year running back can’t make miscues like that.

“We overcame mistakes,” Whisenhunt said. “We can’t turn the ball over twice, like we did offensively. Those two fumbles hurt us. But our guys believed.

“That’s kind of typical of our games, isn’t it? That’s the way it seems like it’s been. This team has resiliency.”

His first thought, on seeing the fumble, was that the Cardinals had to get a stop and block the field goal. That was his plan as soon as Vince Wilfork recovered the fumble. Whisenhunt had that much faith in his special teams.

His special teams, after all, already had turned the tide of the game, coming up with the first block of a Zoltan Mesko punt, setting up the TD that put the Cardinals ahead, 13-9.

“I think we’ve developed a never-say-die attitude,” defensive coordinator Ray Horton said. “We won so many close games last year, the four overtime games, so we know how to react and play in tight games.”

And they knew how they wanted to play the Patriots, even if it didn’t quite go according to script at the end. Horton admitted after the game to scribbling down plays to use against the Patriots at this year’s draft instead of paying his full attention to the proceedings.

The Cardinals used those plays Sunday. They worked, for the most part, with Arizona limiting the Patriots to field goals for nearly 58 minutes.

But, still, for all that preparation and all that effort, it came down to Williams’s fumble — and then Gostkowski’s miss.

What if the kick had gone between the uprights? What if the tears shed by Williams weren’t tinged with relief? It wasn’t a thought that many of the Cardinals wanted to entertain, not with their team 2-0 heading back to Arizona.

“Yeah,” Peterson said, “but he missed it.”

Amalie Benjamin can be reached at abenjamin@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @amaliebenjamin.
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