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Arizona Cardinals' biggest stars fall flat in Carolina

They can't blame Ryan Lindley this time.

With a trip to Super Bowl 50 hanging in the balance, the Cardinals' biggest stars imploded in their postseason rematch with the Panthers, ending in a 49-15 loss.

"Great players play great in big games," Arizona coach Bruce Arians said when he raved about Larry Fitzgerald's sterling performance last week. "And that's how you get to the Hall of Fame. Some guys shrivel in the moment, some guys flourish in the moment."

Carson Palmer was a legitimate MVP candidate this season. Patrick Peterson was the NFL's dominant lockdown cornerback. Fitzgerald has a strong argument as the greatest postseason receiver in history. All three shriveled in the moment.

The seven turnovers from Palmer and Peterson were the most by any team in a playoff game since the Packers' eight in a 2001 loss to the Rams.

"We just didn't play well enough," Arians said after the loss. "Our best players especially didn't play well enough."

Peterson's muffed punt was a critical gaffe, negating the Cardinals' momentum by blowing an opportunity to recover from an early 17-0 deficit.

Fitzgerald dropped two passes Sunday after flubbing just one on 268 targets over the past two years.

While those two perennial Pro Bowlers are certain to bounce back next season, it's fair to wonder how Palmer's postseason collapse will affect his confidence going forward.

Coming off a shaky start versus Green Bay in the Divisional Round, Palmer battled jitters again in Carolina, throwing four interceptions and losing two fumbles to the Panthers' opportunistic defense.

Palmer hasn't been the same since suffering an injury to the index finger of his throwing hand, posting a 56.7 completion rate, 5:7 TD-to-INT ratio and a 65.5 passer rating in the last three games compared to 64.7, 34:10 and 106.8 in his first 16 weeks of the season.

While the injury has altered his touch, this grisly performance was more mental than physical.

Palmer never bounced back from a disastrous two-play sequence early in the second quarter when he missed an open Andre Ellington on a simple dump-off pass and took a third-down sack, turning a field-goal opportunity into a lost fumble.

From that point on, Palmer grew more and more careless with the ball, throwing a series of passes up for grabs in tight coverage. It was fitting that Luke Kuechly ended any hopes of a Cardinals fourth-quarter comeback with a 22-yard pick six on a bad decision from Palmer.

It was just as fitting that Palmer uncorked his fourth and final interception two plays later, as Cam Newton exited the blowout to "MVP" chants from the home crowd.

Kuechly and the rest of Carolina's defense deserves credit for making Palmer's life miserable, but this wasn't just a disappointing outing. It was an epic meltdown with the potential to haunt Palmer in future playoff appearances.

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