With a trip to Santa Clara and a spot in Super Bowl 50 on the line, the Arizona Cardinals played anything but like the Arizona Cardinals.
Turnovers. Missed tackles. Dropped passes.
You name it.
The Cardinals (14-4) made one mistake after another in losing the NFC Championship Game, 49-15, to the Carolina Panthers in front of 74,294 at Bank of America Stadium.
The Panthers, who never trailed, captured the George Halas Trophy for only the second time in franchise history and will meet the Denver Broncos in two weeks.
The matchup between the top two teams in the NFC was one-sided from the get-go.
Behind likely league MVP Cam Newton, the Panthers (17-1) jumped in front 17-0 after the first quarter and led 24-7 at halftime before outscoring the Cardinals 25-8 in the second half.
Carolina’s 49 points were a season-best and a season-worst surrendered by a Cardinals defense that allowed a season-high 476 yards.
Newton accounted for four touchdowns with two passing and two rushing scores.
He threw for 335 yards, completing 19-of-his-28 attempts and added 47 yards on the ground.
Carson Palmer, meanwhile, started slowly and never seemed in sync as he went 23-of-40 for 235 yards and a touchdown. He was picked off four times, sacked three times and fumbled twice.
As a team, the Cardinals turned committed seven turnovers.
It’s the second straight season the Cardinals’ playoff run ended in Carolina.
Not until their fifth possession did the Cardinals’ offense finally show some signs of life. Palmer completed 15-yard passes to J.J. Nelson and Darren Fells, but it was David Johnson who capped the 10-play, 79-yard drive with a one-yard run up the middle to put Arizona on the board, 17-7, at 5:44 of the second quarter. At that point, Johnson had accounted for 83 of the team’s 143 yards.
After a three-and-out on their first possession of the second half, the Cardinals marched 80 yards on 10 plays, finished by Fells’ 21-yard touchdown catch, his second playoff score in Carolina in as many years; and one of the few bright spots in the game. Fells, targeted four times, caught two passes for 36 yards. The touchdown made it 34-15 Carolina at 14:15 of the fourth quarter.
Released by the Cardinals in the offseason, Ted Ginn, Jr. torched his former club for 73 all-purpose yards in the first quarter, including a 22-yard touchdown run that gave Carolina a 10-0 lead at 4:31. Ginn, who joined the Cardinals after signing a three-year, $9.75 million contract prior to the 2014 season, set up the scoring drive with a 33-yard punt return to the Arizona 49.
Through the first 15 minutes of action, the Cardinals had managed only 58 yards of offense with Palmer misfiring on six of his 10 pass attempts. Among the 17 plays the Cardinals ran was Johnson taking the direct snap from center for a one-yard gain and Larry Fitzgerald throwing incomplete—just his second career pass attempt—off of a reverse to the right side of the field.
No team forced more takeaways than the Panthers, who had 39 in the regular season. They forced four in the second quarter alone, twice knocking the ball out of Palmer’s hands after sacks. Palmer was also picked off. The other turnover was a muffed punt by Patrick Peterson, which five plays later resulted in a Newton one-yard score to put the Panthers ahead 24-7 at the 1:56 mark.
Seven different Panthers receivers caught passes from Newton. His two favorite targets were Corey Brown and Greg Olson. Each had 113 receiving yards with Brown catching four passes and Olsen six. Brown’s big grab came late in the first quarter, when he beat Rashad Johnson for an 86-yard score. Olsen was held out of the end zone but helped set up scores in the second half.
STAT OF THE GAME
7: The Cardinals turned it over seven times leading to 22 Panthers points.
HE SAID IT
“This wasn’t him, this was the whole team. He doesn’t play defense,” head coach Bruce Arians told Paul Calvisi in the locker room afterward, referring to Palmer’s performance. “Our best players didn’t play well.”
– Panthers defensive starters Thomas Davis (arm) and Roman Harper (eye) were both lost in second quarter.
– Cardinals DE Josh Mauro exited the game midway through the first quarter due to a right calf injury and did not return.
– Cardinals Ring of Honor safety Adrian Wilson, a five-time Pro Bowler, served as Arizona’s honorary captain.
– Among the Cardinals’ inactives were running back Kerwynn Williams and veteran linebacker Jason Babin.
– Among those in attendance at Bank of America Stadium for the game was NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell.
– Game-time was pushed back five minutes to 4:45 p.m. due to the length of the AFC Championship Game.
Well, there is no next.
When it’s win or go home and the latter rather than the former occurs, the Cardinals now must turn their attention to 2016.
This much we do know about next season: the Cardinals’ opponents.
The home games will feature the Patriots, Jets, Saints, Buccaneers, Redskins, Rams, Seahawks and 49ers; while there will be road trips to Buffalo, Miami, Atlanta, Carolina, Minnesota, Los Angeles, Seattle and San Francisco.
Of course for those that can’t wait that long, then there is the Pro Bowl, in which seven Cardinals players were selected to play: Justin Bethel, Calais Campbell, Larry Fitzgerald, Mike Iupati, Tyrann Mathieu, Carson Palmer and Patrick Peterson.
Mathieu will not play after recently undergoing ACL surgery.
The Pro Bowl is Sunday, Jan. 31 at Aloha Stadium in Honolulu, Hawaii.
Two more important dates for the Cardinals: the start of free agency on March 15 and the NFL Draft, from April 28-30.
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