Cardinals QB Ryan Lindley keeps playoff start in perspective

TEMPE, Ariz. — For the past week, media and fans have been dissecting Ryan Lindley’s prospects for success in his first NFL playoff game this Saturday in Charlotte, N.C., when the Cardinals face the Carolina Panthers in the NFC wild-card round. 

The challenge is enormous. The odds are long. The optimism is minimal.

Forget all that for a moment, however, and imagine what this feels like for a guy who hadn’t played an NFL game in nearly two years before starting the final two games of this regular season — a guy who was on the San Diego Chargers practice squad less than two months ago, wondering if his NFL days were numbered. 

"Starting off, not really knowing how much longer I get to be in the National Football League in September — to be honest it’s been a journey," Lindley said Wednesday. "Going through these valleys and these peaks is what makes you really appreciate not only life, but the game itself."

You can argue convincingly that Lindley didn’t earn this opportunity so much as it fell into his lap due to Carson Palmer’s and Drew Stanton’s injuries and Logan Thomas’ inexperience.

Lindley understands all that. He just doesn’t care.

"I’ve always said that you don’t stick around in the league unless you’re aspiring to play," he said. "That’s not subversive at all to the guy that’s in front of you. It’s just you aspire to be the best you can be and compete each day. 

"I would probably have told you that it was a dream, but I’m just excited now that it’s reality."

It is playoff football and you have to go out there and play fast and just leave it all out there. You never know when it’s going to be your last play or your last game.

Ryan Lindley

Coach Bruce Arians officially named Lindley the starter against the Panthers after Thursday’s practice had concluded. The team had held out hope that Stanton might return from sprains in two knee ligaments suffered Dec. 11 against the Rams, but he couldn’t practice by Arians’ Thursday deadline and will not dress on Saturday, making Thomas the backup.

"He is close, but there’s no way I’m risking it," Arians said of Stanton, before turning his attention to Lindley. "When you get experience in big games and those were two big games, it affects how you play. I think he’s more than ready now to play extremely well."

It’s been a season of firsts for Lindley, whose only previous four NFL starts before this season came in 2012 with the Cardinals, who drafted him that season in the sixth round.

Until last week’s game in San Francisco, Lindley held the distinction of throwing the most NFL passes without a TD. He got that monkey off his back on his 229th career throw when he rifled a 20-yard touchdown pass to receiver Michael Floyd on the Cardinals’ opening drive. 

Lindley admitted it was a relief.

"To be honest, now that it’s over, maybe it was slightly. A little bit," he said. "You go out there and you don’t think, ‘Hey, I need to finally break this streak of touchdowns.’ In a sense, it’s like, ‘When am I finally going to get one?’ 

"Luckily, it (came) early and that was just a product of Mike running a great play and B.A. (Arians) dialing up a good call." 

Lindley’s performance against the 49ers was a vast improvement over his previous start the week before against the Seahawks. He completed 23 of 39 passes for 316 yards and a pair of touchdowns. He was 16 of 25 for 260 yards and two TDs (one interception) in the first half, when the Cardinals took a 17-13, halftime lead.

"He got off to a good start," Arians said. "He was in a comfort zone. Then you could see his leadership come out. He started talking in the huddle more and guys started responding. It was a nice step forward."

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Lindley must take more steps forward to give the Cardinals a chance in Saturday’s game. While he had an effective first half, the offense didn’t produce any points in the second half, and Lindley threw two more bad interceptions.

"There were just opportunities that we missed. There were two big mistakes there at the end and in the middle with the interceptions, but there’s a lot to build on," Lindley said. "It was by far not a perfect game, or even a standard that we want to reach as a playoff team. So there are a lot of improvements that I can make this week, and hopefully we go out there and make it happen on Saturday."

Having another week of first-team reps helps, both because he can run through the plays multiple times and because he can build chemistry with and an understanding of the players to whom he is trying to pass the ball.

"It’s not so much that the game slows down," he said. "I think that if you know what you’re doing, you play within the game. You kind of just let it flow the way it will and you feel more comfortable."

When this season ends, it’s likely Lindley won’t be back with the Cardinals, who have an established pecking order at quarterback that Lindley couldn’t crack in training camp this summer. If this is his last game in Arizona, or maybe even his last NFL pass, he still feels fortunate that he’ll own a couple things few people ever own.

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He’ll have the ball from that first TD pass, which he gave to his wife, and he’ll own the thrill of starting an NFL playoff game.  

"When you look in the grand scheme of things, there is next year, but there is not next year for everybody," he said. "There’s not a next play for everybody, so it’s something that you just have to take to heart. It is playoff football and you have to go out there and play fast and just leave it all out there. You never know when it’s going to be your last play or your last game."

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