To advance to the NFC Divisional Playoffs, the Arizona Cardinals needed a solid defensive effort, a good special teams performance, a reliable if unspectacular running game and competent quarterback play from Ryan Lindley.
They got none of the above.
Cam Newton threw for two touchdowns, Jonathan Stewart rumbled for 123 yards and a score, and the Carolina Panthers’ defense suffocated the Cardinals’ inept offense in a 27-16 win at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte Saturday.
Arizona mustered just 77 yards of offense on the day, breaking an NFL record for the least ever gained in a playoff game.
Carolina (8-8-1) took an early lead, getting a 47-yard field goal from Graham Gano on their first possession. Later in the first quarter, Stewart broke a host of tackles on his way to the end zone on a 13-yard touchdown run. It looked like it could get sideways.
But to the Cardinals’ credit, they mounted a comeback in the second quarter. After Carolina’s Brenton Bersin muffed a Drew Butler punt, Lindley found tight end Darren Fells on a 1-yard touchdown pass to put Arizona on the board.
Later in the quarter, Newton was intercepted by Antonio Cromartie on a play where intended receiver Jerricho Cotchery turned his back on the ball. Cromartie returned it to the Panthers’ 17-yard line after a 50-yard return.
Arizona cashed in four plays later on a 1-yard scoring run by Marion Grice. The play was initially ruled a fumble, but after further review, the officials determined that Grice broke the plane of the goal line for the score, and just like that, the Cardinals had a 14-10 lead.
Gano would connect on a 39-yard field goal right before the end of the first half and the Cardinals went to the locker room with a 14-13 lead.
Carolina would take the lead back with 5:39 to go in the third when former Cardinal Fozzy Whitaker took a screen pass from Newton and zig-zagged through Arizona defenders for a 39-yard touchdown.
On the ensuing kickoff, Ted Ginn, Jr. opted to take the ball out despite fielding it nine yards deep. He was hit at the 10-yard line and coughed up the ball. Melvin White recovered at the 8-yard line for Carolina. Three plays later, Newton hit fullback Mike Tolbert on a 1-yard touchdown pass and in a 92-second span, an Arizona lead turned into a 27-14 lead for the Panthers.
The Cardinals would still have chances — most notably after a Sam Acho sack forced a fumble by Newton that was picked up by Rashad Johnson and returned to the Panthers’ 8-yard line with 11:53 to go. But Lindley’s pass intended for Larry Fitzgerald was picked off by Carolina’s Luke Kuechly, thwarting another threat.
With 2:41 to go, the Cardinals took over at the Carolina 47-yard line after Panthers punter Brad Nortman fumbled a snap. Lindley completed consecutive passes to John Brown and John Carlson to push Arizona down to the 21-yard line. But Lindley threw late to a well-covered Fitzgerald, Kuechly deflected it and Tre Boston picked it off for the final nail in the coffin.
After the Panthers took a 20-14 lead and Ginn fumbled, setting up Carolina at the Arizona 3-yard line, it appeared the Cardinals’ defense held and would force a field goal attempt. But safety Tony Jefferson was flagged on a questionable pass interference call against tight end Greg Olsen that gave Carolina a 1st-and-goal on the 1. Newton hit Tolbert on a TD pass on the next play.
Once again, there was very little to get excited about from the Cardinals’ side of things.
Lindley struggled mightily in his third start of the season and first taste of playoff football. He completed 16-of-28 passes for 81 yards, one touchdown and two costly interceptions.
And again, the third-year signal caller didn’t get much help. The offensive line struggled in both run blocking and pass blocking. The Cardinals mustered only 27 yards on 15 attempts on the ground. Lindley was sacked four times for 31 yards in losses.
Defensively, the Cardinals failed to recapture their swagger that was so present earlier in the season. Stewart spearheaded a rushing attack that gained 188 yards. Newton gashed the Arizona ‘D’ with well-timed scrambles — including two on one third-quarter drive that converted third-downs.
And once again, the tackling was atrocious.
Special teams chipped into the ugliness as well. Ginn’s gaffe was mentioned above. Punter Drew Butler crippled the Cardinals all day with poor punting. He averaged just 34.8 yards on nine punts on the day and failed to flip field position.
• According to ESPN Stats and Info, the Panthers became the fourth straight playoff team with a non-winning record to win in the Wild Card round. The last team to enter the postseason with a losing record, the 2010 Seattle Seahawks, beat the New Orleans Saints in the Wild Card round.
• The Cardinals ran 47 offensive plays, and averaged 1.7 yards per play. Carolina averaged 5.2 yards per play.
• Arizona managed only eight first downs on the day.
• The win was Carolina’s first in the playoffs since they beat the Chicago Bears in the NFC Divisional Playoffs in the 2005 season.
He Said It
“The finality of it. When you get into the playoffs, there is no tomorrow. And we had opportunities to win this ball game and we didn’t capitalize on them. That’s a hard pill to swallow. Our guys played their tails off and I give credit to Carolina. They had a good game plan, but I thought we had our opportunities there in the fourth quarter to take the game back over like we did in the second quarter.” — Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians, when asked by Cardinals broadcaster Paul Calvisi what the toughest part of the loss was.