The Carolina Panthers had two weeks to prepare for the Arizona Cardinals after rolling over the New York Giants.
They may have needed more time.
Plagued by too many turnovers, too many sacks and a late letdown on defense, the Panthers returned from their bye week with a thud, losing 22-6 to the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday.
"There is a lot of things we have to correct and a lot of blame to go around for everybody," Panthers coach Ron Rivera said.
After losing its first two games, Carolina (1-3) looked dominating against New York on Sept. 22, blowing out the Giants 38-0 after Cam Newton accounted for four touchdowns and the defense sacked Eli Manning seven times.
Arizona (3-2) turned the tables on the Panthers after their long break, sacking Newton seven times, including one for a safety, and intercepting him three times. Newton also lost a fumble late in the fourth quarter that essentially ended the Panthers’ hope of a comeback.
Carolina’s receivers didn’t help by dropping four passes, including two by the normally reliable Steve Smith.
The running game, ranked third in the NFL coming in, had a hard time gaining traction against Arizona’s speed defense, managing 95 yards, including 21 in the second half.
Carolina also had nine penalties for 79 yards, rounding out a dismal day in the desert.
"It’s hard to win in this league as it is and we can’t help them out by mishaps and miss opportunities," Newton said.
Newton had fond memories of University of Phoenix Stadium, winning a national championship with Auburn in 2011 before making his NFL debut later that year after being selected with the top overall by Carolina in the NFL draft.
His return will not be remembered as fondly.
Disguising their coverages, the Cardinals kept Newton confused for much of the game, forcing him to hold the ball longer than he normally would, leading to sacks and turnovers.
Newton threw for 215 yards in the first half, but couldn’t get the Panthers in the end zone. In the second half, he was sacked by Calais Campbell for a safety and had a pass intercepted by Daryl Washington with the Panthers at the Arizona 5-yard line.
Newton finished 21 of 39 for 308 yards and no touchdowns.
"We definitely were able to manipulate our scheme and change it up on Cam," said Arizona linebacker Karlos Dansby, who had two sacks and an interception. "Things were in there that he hadn’t seen all year and we were able to execute and make plays. We confused him a lot."
Carolina’s defense kept it close in the first half while the offense labored, holding the Cardinals to 118 total yards while intercepting Palmer twice for a 6-3 lead.
The Panthers weren’t as sharp in the second half, allowing Arizona to open the third quarter with an 85-yard drive capped by Rashard Mendenhall’s 1-yard touchdown run that put the Cardinals up 10-6.
Arizona had another decent drive in the fourth quarter to set up Jay Feely for his second field goal, this one from 50 yards, and Carolina’s defense was put in a bad position after Newton’s fumble was recovered by Antoine Cason and returned 40 yards to the Panthers 9-yard line.
"On defense, we had our opportunities, we made things happen, but we gave up a couple of silly plays," Rivera said. "We weren’t where we were supposed to, the running back bounces outside and runs for big yards. You cannot do that."
This latest flop could increase the speculation that Rivera’s job is in jeopardy.
His players don’t want to hear it.
"We’ve got the best coaches. We are so prepared when we go into a game," Panthers safety Mike Mitchell said. "It is really on us. It is so stupid. We have to stop putting ourselves in that situation. Coaches call the perfect calls and we don’t get it done. That is the moral of the story."
Notes: The Panthers lost starting left guard Amini Silatolu with a knee injury in the third quarter. … Washington had one other game with a sack and interception, against Carolina in the 2011 season opener. … Palmer said two of his interceptions came when he was trying to force the ball to Larry Fitzgerald when he shouldn’t have tried.