DAN BICKLEY

Arizona Cardinals’ lethargic loss to Panthers hopefully just a blip

Nov 14, 2021, 5:51 PM | Updated: 8:33 pm
Arizona Cardinals head coach Kliff Kingsbury runs off the field after an NFL football game against ...

Arizona Cardinals head coach Kliff Kingsbury runs off the field after an NFL football game against the Carolina Panthers Sunday, Nov. 14, 2021, in Glendale, Ariz. The Panthers won 34-10. (AP Photo/Darryl Webb)

(AP Photo/Darryl Webb)

For over two months, the Arizona Cardinals have been guzzling good times from a firehose. On Sunday, they encountered a predictable, uncomfortable reaction:

Hiccup.

At least we hope that’s the story of a 34-10 loss to an undermanned but highly-motivated Panthers team before a muted crowd at State Farm Stadium.

The Cardinals lacked energy and urgency. Their offense regressed considerably in Colt McCoy’s second start. And for the second consecutive year, Panthers head coach Matt Rhule utterly dominated his chess match with Kliff Kingsbury.

That’s why you don’t hand out Coach of the Year awards after nine games.

“It wasn’t good enough on any level, in any phase,” Kingsbury said.

Some of this is understandable. The Cardinals seemed due for a truly odiferous performance, a team that has amassed a long injury list and very little practice time in recent weeks. The Panthers benefitted from the fresh energy of Cam Newton, who signed with Carolina three days earlier and produced two touchdowns in his first two touches. They were buoyed by a revenge game from kicker Zane Gonzalez, who contributed four field goals.

It feels like nothing the return of Kyler Murray and DeAndre Hopkins can’t fix.

What’s most concerning is the performance of the Cardinal defense, which was ranked No. 4 in the NFL entering Sunday’s game. They were not physical. They generated very little pressure on backup quarterback P.J. Walker. They were thrashed by a healthy Christian McCaffrey. They received very little from Chandler Jones, who made a splash with his Pat Tillman shoes and nothing else.

The defense made it look far too easy for a Panthers team that entered the game with a losing record and a decimated offensive line.

“I thought we had a good week, so I was surprised with how we played,” Kingsbury said.

It’s bizarre how the Cardinals are so focused and dominant on the road, where they are a perfect 5-0 with boisterous wins at the Titans, Rams, Browns and 49ers. And yet they’ve looked anything but dominant at State Farm Stadium, where they are 3-2 and have showcased some of their worst football of the season.

It’s been a strange year in the NFL for home teams, who entered Week 10 with a losing record. But this is not the way to rebuild a home-field advantage in Glendale. This is not the way to make people flock to Glendale. This is not how you reward the fans who choose to spend beautiful autumn Sundays indoors.

The yucky stuff began early. McCoy fumbled on the first possession of the game, stripped of the football by former Cardinals linebacker Haason Reddick. That led to Newton’s first touchdown. And the Kingsbury made one of those baffling decisions that marked his first two seasons at the helm.

On 4th and 1 from Arizona’s 42-yard line, Kingsbury called for a quarterback sneak. There were nearly 10 minutes left in the first quarter. The curious decision didn’t work, and the turnover on downs led to another Panthers touchdown.

“We’ve got to get some stuff cleaned up, no doubt,” Kingsbury said. “Start the game with a turnover, turnover on downs, bad call by me there …”

Kingsbury said his play calling was to blame, not his decision to go for it on fourth down. And maybe he could feel the dearth of energy on his sideline and wanted to jumpstart his team. But the gameplan was to make an unseasoned rookie quarterback sustain long drives in just his second career start, and instead, Kingsbury gave Walker another short field. And Walker made the Cardinals pay dearly for Kingsbury’s tactical error, allowing the Panthers to flip the script on their opponent, racing to a commanding lead in the first quarter.

Granted, trap games happen in professional football, even to elite NFL teams. It recently happened to Dallas, Buffalo and Baltimore. But this loss comes with a high price. They can no longer say they are the best team in football. They may have lost their backup quarterback to injury, who said postgame he thinks he’s OK. And with the Green Bay Packers’ win, they are no longer No. 1 in the NFC.

This was a plate of crow for dinner and a slice of humble pie for dessert. Let’s hope the lingering taste makes this an anomaly and not a trend.

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