Panthers 19, Cardinals 12
Over nine seasons as coach of the Carolina Panthers, John Fox has made it a point to hide his emotions behind an avalanche of cliches, guarded answers and a tough guy persona.
Sunday was different.
Minutes after his league-worst Panthers celebrated the end of a seven-game losing streak with a hard-to-watch, but quite gratifying 19-12 win over the punchless Arizona Cardinals, Fox took a minute to soak in what was almost certainly his final home game on the job.
Securing an overall winning regular-season record, Fox left the field with his arms raised and fists clenched. He then hustled to the locker room, where captain Jordan Gross was waiting to hand him the game ball.
''We develop a lot of relationships here. There are a lot of high character guys in that locker room that I appreciate,'' Fox said. ''It means a lot to me.''
Later, Fox quickly grabbed a water bottle as he appeared to be on the verge of choking up.
''It was an emotional day,'' he acknowledged.
Denied a contract extension the past two years and seemingly at odds with the offseason roster-gutting that left the Panthers (2-12) short on talent and experience, Fox is coaching out the string in the last year of his deal.
This time, his youngsters came through for him in a performance that was just good enough to beat a similarly dysfunctional unit. And it didn't even hurt Carolina's draft positioning, as Cincinnati also won to keep the Panthers a game up in the race for the No. 1 overall pick.
Jimmy Clausen outplayed John Skelton in a matchup of rookie quarterbacks, throwing his first touchdown pass since Oct. 3. John Kasay kicked four field goals and Jonathan Stewart rushed for 137 yards.
Arizona (4-10), which was finally eliminated from playoff contention in the weak NFC West, mustered 43 yards rushing in their eighth loss in nine games. In his second start, Skelton threw an interception and lost a fumble.
''I think it's just forcing the ball sometimes,'' Skelton said. ''I threw an interception on a ball that should have never gone to (Stephen) Spach. Those are plays that at a lower level, you can get away with. But when you come here they are going to make plays on defense.''
The Cardinals got within 19-9 when Steve Breaston recovered teammate Tim Hightower's fumble in the end zone with 5:41 left. The 2-point conversion failed.
Arizona got a late field goal with 54 seconds left. But the Cardinals, who failed to recover a surprise onside kick to start the second half, saw Carolina's Jordan Senn recover their second try to seal Carolina's victory.
It was then that Gross told the equipment manager to save the game ball.
''I gave it to Fox. It was neat because he's given out a lot of game balls and he's not a guy that really talks about his own accolades and things,'' Gross said. ''I think it meant a lot to him.''
The game served as a painful reminder of how far and how quickly these franchises have sunk thanks to poor quarterback play. Less than two years ago the Cardinals forced six turnovers by Jake Delhomme in a 33-13 rout of the Panthers in the NFC divisional playoffs on their way to a surprise Super Bowl appearance.
Clausen was good enough get his first win in eight tries, completing 13 of 19 passes for 141 yards and no turnovers. Stewart took advantage of the league's 30th-ranked rushing defense, and Carolina pounced on Arizona's mistakes.
Skelton, a fifth-round pick from Fordham who got the job with Derek Anderson (concussion) sidelined, didn't get the help he received a week earlier, when the ground game and special teams dominated in a 43-13 win over Denver.
Skelton's interception led to a TD and a 13-0 deficit. He finished 17-of-33 for 196 yards.
''It seems every time we had a chance to do something, we made mistakes,'' coach Ken Whisenhunt said, ''whether it was turnovers, running into the kicker, our onside kick was short.''
Leading 6-0, the Panthers caught a break when Skelton inexplicably floated a pass into double coverage toward Spach that was easily intercepted by Sherrod Martin. On the next play, Clausen found an open Jeff King for a 16-yard touchdown, ending Clausen's streak of 202 passes without a TD.
By batting down a pass in the end zone on third down and recovering Skelton's fumble, Tyler Brayton led a solid Carolina defensive effort hours after the news he was fined $15,000 for leveling Atlanta's Chris Owens from off the field on a punt return in a 31-10 loss last week.
Those kind of days had become commonplace in a miserable season. It made Sunday that much more satisfying on an emotional day that still had its limits. Fox dismissed a suggestion he got sentimental on the drive to the stadium.
''I'm not quite that soft,'' he said.
Notes: Cardinals WR Larry Fitzgerald, 27, caught nine passes for 125 yards to go over 8,000 yards receiving. Only Randy Moss reached the milestone at a younger age. ... Cardinals KR LaRod Stephens-Howling left with a hamstring injury. Replacement Andre Roberts had a 47-yard return. ... Panthers CB Chris Gamble sat out with an ankle injury. ... Panthers DE Charles Johnson had a sack for a fifth straight game.