A dejected Carson Palmer walks off the field in the Cardinals' 49-15 NFC Championship game loss to the Panthers.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Nobody was watching when Carson Palmer began this journey, as he took step by meticulous step rehabilitating a torn ACL.
The Cardinals quarterback returned to the field quicker than expected this offseason, then won 13 regular season games and played so well he was in the Most Valuable Player conversation. It came crashing down in the most public way possible on Sunday, as a nation tuned in to see the 49-15 loss to the Panthers in Sunday night's NFC Championship game.
Palmer could never find a rhythm and finished the affair 23-of-40 for 235 yards with a touchdown and four interceptions. He was also sacked three times and lost two fumbles. Palmer walked into Bank of America Stadium expecting to emerge as the NFC champion, and left much differently.
"You put so much in and you sacrifice so much," Palmer said. "You get to this point and it just burns. We put so much in. The coaches put so much in. The fans put so much in. To let them down is about as bad a feeling as you can feel."
The Panthers jumped out to a 17-0 lead and Palmer felt like he had to do something. He admitted he started making riskier throws because he felt like he had to score quickly.
"I was definitely forcing it," Palmer said. "I just put us in that hole."
Palmer won his first career postseason game this year but fell short of the Super Bowl. He wasn't the only one who felt the pressure of the moment. Veteran wideout Larry Fitzgerald was crushed after a loss in which he had only four catches for 30 yards.
"I was pressing too," Fitzgerald said. "When you get to this position as an older guy, you know the window of opportunity is closing on you. You put the time, you put so much effort in – practices, film study, all the things you do and sometimes you forget just to take a deep breath and just do what you've done your entire career."
Palmer and Fitzgerald are both under contract for next season, as are most of the other key players. The window is far from closed, but they also know this was a golden opportunity squandered.
Palmer was a huge reason why the Cardinals completed the most successful regular season in franchise history, but he couldn't duplicate that performance against a stout Carolina defense. The Panthers began celebrating midway through the fourth quarter, and Palmer couldn't look away.
That's what he wanted so badly.
"Staring over at that sideline, seeing that feeling the other team has, is going to stick with me probably the rest of my life," Palmer said.
PETERSON WISHED HE WAS "SMARTER" ON MUFFED PUNT
Cornerback Patrick Peterson wasn't disappointed that he tried to catch a second-quarter punt while on the run, only the result. The Cardinals trailed 17-7 a few minutes before halftime and for the first time had some momentum, but his turnover gave it all back to the Panthers.
Peterson sprinted up on the ball and it bounced off his shoulder, and Panthers cornerback Teddy Williams recovered. The Panthers scored a touchdown on the drive to go ahead by 17.
"I've just got to be smarter in that position," Peterson said. "I believe it was 17-7 at that time. It was a crazy punt, but at the end of the day, I'm trying to be a playmaker. I'm not going to regret going after that ball. I just have to make sure I'm smarter in that situation in fielding the ball."
Peterson somewhat atoned for his mistake later in the quarter when he intercepted a pass and returned it 72 yards to the Carolina 22-yard-line. But Palmer was intercepted on the next play.
Peterson said he had blocks lined up for a possible pick-six until Panthers wideout Ted Ginn caught him from behind.
"I was trying to set up Cam Newton, but as soon as I looked up I saw No. 19 still chugging," Peterson said. "It was a great setup for me, it was just Ted Ginn made a hell of a play."
DAVID JOHNSON IMPRESSIVE TO CLOSE OUT ROOKIE YEAR
The Cardinals didn't have many standouts in the loss but Johnson, a rookie, continued to impress. He had 15 carries for 60 yards and a touchdown, including several impressive runs on the team's first-half scoring drive.
"Definitely in spurts we had great blockers and I had good holes to run through," Johnson said.
The team fell so far behind, though, that the offense had to abandon the ground game in the second half. Johnson also led the team with nine catches for 68 yards.