Will Hernandez stood just outside the Cardinals' locker room in his undershirt and uniform pants, watching a TV monitor high on the wall opposite the doors he stood near. The tunnel to the field was less than 50 feet away, but the Cardinals guard had been banished already, booted for making contact with an official while trying to defend the honor of fallen teammate James Conner.
The moment Hernandez left the game, it could have been a disaster. The game was tied. The Panthers were already going to get a penalty when linebacker Frankie Luvu threw Conner to the ground. The Cards were going to be inside the Carolina 5.
But Hernandez went after Luvu, earning an offsetting foul and then an ejection for making contact. The Cardinals offensive line, already down Justin Pugh because of his lingering elbow injury, now had to use a second backup guard. And the Cardinals eventually had to settle for a field goal, from gimpy kicker Matt Prater – whose hip hurting so bad that running back Eno Benjamin had to kick off a couple of times.
"I wish Will hadn't have done it, because I knew they were looking to make it a back-and-forth thing when he was just protecting James," Kyler Murray said.
In the end, it didn't break the Cardinals. Instead it was the Panthers that broke, with J.J. Watt and Dennis Gardeck combining on the next series to force the interception that ended things, and Kyler Murray and Hollywood Brown putting the cherry on top with a gorgeous TD pass.
The game was still less than smooth. The Cardinals know that. Kliff Kingsbury and Murray both definitely know it. The same performance won't beat the Eagles next week. But it was a win the Cardinals had to have, and it was one they got, and what they need – you can see it's in there. Whether they can squeeze it out enough of the time, that still has to be proven.
"Whatever it takes to be 2-2, that was the mantra," Kingsbury said. "That was the mission."
-- Murray said he knew "we'd be fine" after the slow offensive start, although that might've been as much about the Panthers' ineptness as much as what the Cardinals would do. But when they finally broke through they overcame what had previously killed them. The Cardinals had a first-and-goal at the Carolina 6 and a Trey McBride false start moved it back to the 11. But eventually, Murray found tight end Zach Ertz on a 2-yard TD pass.
"To finally touch end zone – it's been six quarters since we touched end zone – it felt brand new to touch the end zone," Murray said. "It's crazy."
-- Murray was caught by TV cameras very unhappy with Kingsbury (and Kingsbury yelling back) after the Cardinals were forced to burn a timeout with the play clock running down.
"You saw it," Murray said. "Just trying to get on the ball and go. They are one of those teams, they struggle with tempo."
Kingsbury chose a deadpan response when asked about the back-and-forth.
"I was just seeing after the game what he wanted to eat," Kingsbury quipped. "If we should bring him something separate or let him go with the standard team meal." What was the choice, he was asked. "Salmon."
-- James Conner didn't have a great statistical game – 55 yards on 13 carries – but again, when the Cardinals get a lead, he wears down defenses and the clock late. After the Panthers cut it to 10 late, Conner carried five straight times to generate two first downs and allow Murray kneels to bleed the end of the clock. Conner also had one nasty straight-arm on Panthers cornerback Jaycee Horn.
-- Those kneels accounted for three of Murray's 12 official rushing attempts, but the Cardinals are now 12-1 when he rushes at least nine times. His stats weren't awesome – 29 yards on nine non-kneels – but he scored and the Panthers had to worry about him the whole time.
-- Zach Allen was already having a good season but he had his first sack of the year, knocked down three passes, and earned high praise from J.J. Watt afterward. Allen has been fantastic – at a good time, in the last year of his contract.
-- With Prater hurting, running back Eno Benjamin had to kick off a couple of times in the fourth quarter. To the best of my recollection, Benjamin is the first Cardinals position player to kick off since Pat Tillman did in New York after the infamous Bill Gramatica leap-to-celebrate-a-first-half-field-goal-and-tear-his-ACL play.
-- I won't be surprised to see a kicker signed to the practice squad this week, in case.
-- Trey McBride had his first three NFL catches and I'll have to check, but I think he had more snaps than Maxx Williams.
-- Two failed fourth-down tries for the Cardinals, both needing one yard. One, Rondale Moore was used on a jet sweep that didn't fool the Panthers at all – "I tried to get too fancy," Kingsbury admitted – and on the second, center Rodney Hudson airmailed a snap that even Carson Palmer wouldn't have been able to grab.
-- Rondale Moore's return featured on deep shot (he caught the ball but was clearly out of bounds) but also a bunch of horizontal quick passes, like last season. His usage will be something to watch. Hollywood Brown, though, has made some fantastic grabs under pressure. He's looked great the last two games.
That's it for tonight.