Carson Palmer helplessly watched the Carolina Panthers force the Arizona Cardinals and their third-string quarterback into the worst offensive performance in playoff history last January.
It was a dark moment for the injured Palmer, whose competitive drive once led him to threaten retirement if he wasn't traded from a team he didn't feel could contend. He waited 12 years for the first playoff victory of his career and now gets a chance to go head-to-head with Cam Newton, whose MVP-caliber season has the Panthers on the brink of running the table at home.
Sunday night's NFC Championship game will be the first-ever meeting between Heisman Trophy-winning quarterbacks in the playoffs, with the winner carrying his franchise to its second Super Bowl appearance.
Palmer won all six of his starts for the Cardinals in 2014 but missed three games early in the season with a right shoulder injury and the final part after tearing his ACL. Arizona limped into the playoffs at 11-5 before the 7-8-1 Panthers held the Cardinals to a playoff-record low 78 total yards in a 27-16 victory.
Playing in all 16 regular-season games this time, Palmer finished with career highs of 35 touchdown passes and a 104.6 passer rating in guiding Arizona (14-3) to a league-high 408.3 yards per game and the NFC West title. He tossed three TDs in last week's wild 26-20 divisional playoff win over Green Bay, and hit Larry Fitzgerald on a 75-yard catch-and-run to set up a shovel pass to Fitzgerald that won it three plays into overtime.
It was a gratifying victory for Palmer, who won the Heisman at Southern California in 2002 and demanded a trade from Cincinnati after a disappointing 2010 season.
Palmer's right index finger injury – one he says isn't an issue – pales in comparison to the one that kept him out of last year's playoff meeting. Now he's hoping to help avenge that defeat and bring the Cardinals to their first Super Bowl since they lost to Pittsburgh after the 2008 season.
“As I haven't been playing in these games, I've studied it and watched it from afar and gone through it mentally,” Palmer said. “As big as this game is, you can't make it bigger than it is. It's win or go home and there's plenty of implications, but we've got a pretty good recipe that wins games and we're going to stick with that recipe.”
Carolina (16-1) has become a different team with the emergence of Newton. The Panthers, often known for their defense under coach Ron Rivera, averaged an NFL-high 31.3 points to rank just ahead of Arizona's 30.6.
Newton became the first quarterback in NFL history to throw 35 touchdown passes and run for 10, and along with Palmer will garner plenty of MVP votes. Newton, the 2010 Heisman winner at Auburn, threw for 161 yards and a touchdown in last week's 31-24 win over Seattle.
Carolina is the only team to go unbeaten at home this season, but Arizona enters with a 7-1 road record.
''We prepared too much to get nervous,'' Newton said. ''In some way, shape or form we played this game numerous times in our head, watched countless film, made this adjustment and that adjustment, so when you're put in the fire you already have what you need to do what you do. Nothing else needs to be done or said. No matter if we're up or we're down, just believe in the plan and keep going.''
Two touchdown runs from Jonathan Stewart, a Newton TD pass to Greg Olsen and Luke Kuechly's pick-6 gave the Panthers a seemingly insurmountable halftime lead last week, but the Seahawks held them scoreless in the second half.
That isn't the first time Carolina has suffered a close call. It blew a 17-point lead against Indianapolis before winning in overtime, led Green Bay by 23 in the fourth before winning by eight and needed a field goal as time expired to beat the New York Giants after coughing up a 28-point lead.
''I'll be honest, I get it, I understand,'' Rivera said. “But, shoot, we won those football games and look at who we played against. Am I concerned? Yeah. But are these things correctable and fixable? Most certainly. Let's stay focused on what we did – we won the football game.''
Arizona had its own issues closing out the Packers last week. Aaron Rodgers completed a 60-yard pass on 4th-and-20 with 55 seconds left before throwing a 41-yard Hail Mary to send the game into overtime.
Fitzgerald, who finished with a franchise playoff-record 176 receiving yards, saved the game in OT. Coach Bruce Arians knows the Cardinals can't be that vulnerable against the Panthers, especially early.
Arizona blitzes more than any team in the league, and it likely will try to put Newton under pressure from the start even though Carolina's QB threw a league-high 18 TDs in blitz situations this season. Newton wasn't at his best in last year's playoff meeting, finishing 18 of 32 for 198 yards, two touchdowns and an interception while rushing for 35 yards.
''It's kind of like back in college, getting ready for the wishbone,'' Arians said. “You don't see the quarterback in this league run (with that) power very often. So they give you so many different, unique sets that you have to account for.''
Getting the ground game going will be a priority for the Cardinals, too. They rushed for 27 yards in a loss to Seattle in the regular-season finale before finishing with 40 last week, and rookie David Johnson has averaged 2.8 yards on 35 carries over his last three.
The playing surface in Carolina has been a talking point all week, but neither team seemed to have an issue running there in the divisional playoffs. Stewart finished with 106 of the Panthers' 144 rushing yards, and the Seahawks averaged 6.5 yards on 12 carries.
''I don't care if we're playing in a parking lot,'' Arians said. ''It's the championship. Be aware of it and have the proper shoes.''
Arizona won 33-13 in Charlotte on the way to its only previous Super Bowl, as Fitzgerald finished with 166 yards while setting the playoff record he broke last week. The Panthers also went unbeaten at home that season.