CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Of all the factors that led to the Arizona Cardinals' 49-15 loss to the Carolina Panthers in Sunday's NFC Championship Game, the biggest trudged into an interview room inside Bank of America Stadium wearing a sharp navy blue suit and a predictably glum expression. Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer knew how bad his night had been. The flight home, the offseason of second-guessing, all the questions that would arise in the wake of it probably would be even worse.
This one, as he was more than willing to admit, was on him.
Sure, you can point to other reasons for Arizona's blowout loss. The Cardinals' top-flight defense couldn't contain Panthers quarterback Cam Newton, and Pro Bowl cornerback Patrick Petersonmuffed a punt at a critical juncture in the second quarter. But Palmer had six turnovers attached to his name when this contest ended. He picked the worst possible time to suffer through his worst game of the season.
The really sad part is that this was supposed to be the year when Palmer put all those issues -- along with the theory that he wasn't capable of taking a team deep into the postseason -- behind him. Now all those questions are right back in his face, as his team tries to make sense of what went wrong in this contest.
"I kept digging us into a hole," Palmer said after completing 23 of 40 passes for 235 yards with one touchdown, four interceptions and two lost fumbles. "And we couldn't find a way to get out of it."
The worst possible scenario for Palmer was exactly the one that played out on Sunday night.
The Cardinals had won their previous game -- a 26-20 overtime victory over Green Bay in the Divisional Round -- despite a slow start by their Pro Bowl quarterback. It was an instant red flag for anybody who knew how dangerous the Panthers could be in their own stadium. Carolina had jumped out to a 31-0 first-half lead over Seattle in its own Divisional Round win. The Panthers were more than capable of doing the same to Arizona if Palmer couldn't get his team focused early.
We quickly learned that Palmer didn't stand a chance in this game. The Cardinals didn't cross midfield until the second quarter, when they trailed 17-0. Palmer also committed three turnovers in that quarter, including two fumbles off sacks and an interception by Panthers free safety Kurt Coleman with 49 seconds left in the half. That final giveaway cost Arizona a shot to shave a 24-7 deficit to 24-14.
In fairness to Palmer, he could've used better protection against a Carolina pass rush that has become more potent in the postseason. But Palmer never seemed capable of jump-starting his offense when it needed it most. Remember, this was a unit that led the league in total offense (408.3 yards per game) and finished second in scoring (30.6 ppg). The one thing the offense was supposed to do well was put points on the board when it mattered most.
The easy explanation for Palmer's problems was an injured index finger on his right (throwing) hand that he's been playing with since late in the regular season. That wasn't an excuse that Arizona head coach Bruce Arians was buying.
"Carson didn't lose the damn game," Arians said. "And nothing is wrong with his damn finger. You can keep all them questions. We just didn't play well enough. Our best players especially didn't play well enough."
That last sentence typified Arizona's biggest dilemma on Sunday. The Cardinals beat Green Bay primarily because Pro Bowl wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald went off in the second half of that game. When the Cardinals needed a spark, Fitzgerald delivered in a huge way. It's what great players do in these moments: They carry their teams when all else seems to be failing.
Fitzgerald couldn't do that in this contest. Neither could Peterson, David Johnson or any other Cardinal who has Pro Bowl-caliber ability. That left Palmer to do the very thing that made him the first overall pick in the 2003 draft and a man who played himself into the league MVP conversation earlier this year. This was the time when he needed to add a key notch to his legacy.
Palmer instead spent most of the second half making mistakes that resulted from him forcing the issue. He led Arizona to another touchdown early in the fourth quarter -- capped off by a 21-yard touchdown pass to tight end Darren Fells -- but that only made the score 34-15. Palmer threw interceptions on the next two possessions, with the second one being returned for a 22-yard score by PanthersPro Bowl linebacker Luke Kuechly. By that point, the only question left worth pondering was whether Palmer would be allowed to finish the game.
Arians ultimately left his starting quarterback in to continually throw downfield in a contest that had long since ended. With every pass, Palmer seemed to be sending a message that his team wasn't going to surrender.
"When you're down that much, you're not going to throw a bunch of check-downs and walk off the field," Palmer said. "We're going to fight. We're going to keep throwing and not take a knee. We're not going to just throw the ball to the halfback and get tackled on downs. We continued to fight and it was just too much to overcome."
The most glaring aspect of Palmer's tough night was that it came at the same time that Carolina's star quarterback, Cam Newton, was doing pretty much whatever he wanted. This game was billed as the first ever playoff matchup of two former Heisman Trophy-winning quarterbacks (who both had been the first overall selections in their respective draft classes). At 36, Palmer had experienced almost everything a quarterback could've encountered in this league. The 26-year-old Newton, on the other hand, was just starting to come into his own.
It's not the fairest comparison, but Newton looked like he was built for this stage. He played with more swagger, more consistency and more flair. Palmer was rigid from the start, the same as he was in the early stages of that win over Green Bay. Though he had more weapons to work with on offense than Newton, Palmer seemed less certain of how to capitalize on them against a Panthers secondary that had been plagued by recent injuries.
So now Palmer gets to face the fallout. He has started four playoff games in his career, with three ending in losses (he didn't finish the first, a January 2006 defeat to Pittsburgh, because of a severe knee injury). It would be one thing if Palmer had amassed those numbers by his fourth or fifth year. It's an entirely different matter when you're talking about a player who just finished his 13th NFL season.
The reality is that Palmer might not have many great opportunities left to lead a team to a championship.
"This is as low as you can feel," Palmer said. "You put so much into this and you come into the season with such high expectations. To lose like this hurts."
Palmer admitted that the pain of this defeat prevented him from savoring the overall success that Arizona enjoyed this season. This was still a team that made huge strides, both by going 13-3 and winning the NFC West. But as Palmer pointed out, "There is still another step left for us [to take]."
Unfortunately for Arizona, that opportunity was missed on Sunday because the quarterback wasn't up to the task.