Cardinals’ season ends in historically futile fashion
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Larry Fitzgerald rattled off a list of Arizona teammates who didn’t play in Saturday’s season-ending loss to the Carolina Panthers.
Carson Palmer. Darnell Dockett. Andre Ellington. Daryl Washington.
Injuries and other issues decimated the Cardinals, who at 9-1 in November had the best record in the NFL but closed a once-promising season with a 27-16 loss at Carolina on Saturday.
Arizona was eliminated from the playoffs with a thud: third-string quarterback Ryan Lindley managed to lead the Cardinals to just 78 yards — an NFL record for fewest yards in a postseason game.
"We were decimated by injuries this year," Fitzgerald said. "But we never made that an excuse. Now looking back … if you see all the guys we lost, key components of our team. But coach never allowed us to feel bad about ourselves."
If there was disappointment over Arizona’s unraveling, coach Bruce Arians tried to deflect attention to how much the Cardinals overcame.
Quarterback Palmer tore his ACL, then backup Drew Stanton suffered a knee sprain. Dockett blew out his knee in training camp, Washington was suspended by the NFL for the year.
The list goes on and on and only got worse as they closed in on the playoffs. The Cardinals lost five of their final seven games.
"I don’t know if I’ve ever been prouder of guys that go out and fight every week," Arians said.
When asked if the loss of so many players doomed Arizona’s opportunity to make a deep run into the playoffs, Arians bristled.
"No missed opportunity whatsoever, these guys overcame," he said. "This was a great season."
It ended against a Carolina team that used a stifling defense to help Cam Newton claim his first playoff victory.
The fourth-year quarterback threw for 198 yards and two touchdowns, and Carolina’s defense set an NFL record for fewest yards allowed in a postseason game. It was Carolina’s first playoff win in nine years and Newton’s first playoff victory since entering the league as the No. 1 overall pick in the 2011 draft.
The Panthers were rough on third-string quarterback Lindley, who was intercepted twice and sacked four times.
"You are called upon to win football games and we didn’t do that," Lindley said.
The New York Giants held the previous NFL record for fewest yards in a postseason game, holding Cleveland to 86 yards on Dec. 21, 1958. It appeared the Panthers wouldn’t get the record, but Arizona began lateraling the ball around the field on the final play and lost 19 yards.
It was a fitting end to Arizona’s struggles. The Cardinals managed 12 yards in the second half and had eight first downs for the game.
"Young guys need to take away, no matter what you did the first couple months of the season, you’ve got to come to the stage week in and week out," said linebacker Larry Foote, who doesn’t know if he’ll be back next season.
"I’ve got to give it some thought. There’s two sides: the team’s got to want me back, and I’ve got to want to play."
The future is also murky for Fitzgerald, who has a large salary cap number in 2015 that the Cardinals will likely need to trim to keep the receiver. He declined to discuss his future.
"The taste of defeat is all I can think about right now," he said. "I love Arizona, I love the Cardinals, I love the city. It’s been a great place to play and I couldn’t be more appreciative of the opportunity to fulfill my dream of competing in the NFL."
Trailing by one at halftime, the Panthers scored two touchdowns in a span of 1 minute, 32 seconds late in the third quarter to take control.
Rookie running back Fozzy Whittaker caught a pass in the flat from Newton, reversed fields and got a key block from Kelvin Benjamin to spring him for a 39-yard touchdown.
On the ensuing kickoff, Melvin White stripped returner Ted Ginn Jr., a former Panther, at the Arizona 3 and Kevin Reddick recovered for Carolina. A pass interference penalty on Tony Jefferson on third down gave Carolina a new set of downs, and Newton took advantage. He found wide-open fullback Mike Tolbert in the left flat for a 1-yard touchdown and a 27-14 lead.
The Cardinals (11-6) had one last chance to get in the game when Newton was hit from behind and Rashad Johnson recovered the ball and returned it to the Carolina 8. But All-Pro Luke Kuechly ruined any chance of an Arizona comeback when he stepped in front Larry Fitzgerald and intercepted Lindley’s pass at the 5.