Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis stiff-arms Cardinals running back David Johnson en route to a 46-yard fumble return for a touchdown during the Cardinals' Sunday loss.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Halfway through the season, the Cardinals have put themselves in a difficult spot.
The hopes before the season of challenging for a championship – of the league, of the conference, even of the division – haven't disappeared. But they have faded, taking yet another body blow Sunday in Carolina.
The Cardinals returned to the scene of their painful NFC Championship loss and suffered another loss, this time 30-20 at Bank of America Stadium. Sporting the same halftime deficit as the title game – behind, 24-7 – it wasn't just the defeat but the way it happened.
"We're getting hit in the mouth," linebacker Kevin Minter said. "We just have to stop the bleeding before it's too
late. Are we going to be home in January? Are we contenders or pretenders, like Coach always says."
The Cardinals (3-4-1) were helped some with the Seahawks (4-2-1) losing in New Orleans, so the Cardinals didn't lose ground in the NFC West. Bigger picture, a Wild Card playoff berth remains a possibility.
But late comebacks that come up short will undermine everything.
"We have to stop coming out slow," safety Tony Jefferson said. "That's enough of that."
The Cardinals had the ball down 10 points with 3:19 left, thanks to an tremendous strip-fumble recovery by Jefferson while tackling Panthers running back Jonathan Stewart. But on the next play, quarterback Carson Palmer tried a screen to running back David Johnson, and Carolina defensive end Kona Ealy tipped it to himself for an interception that essentially ended all hope.
"The guy makes a hell of a play there," coach Bruce Arians said. "For what would have been a nice chunk."
But again it underscored the hole the Cardinals were in. Most of the game the pass protection couldn't hold up, surrendering eight sacks to a Carolina defense that had had trouble getting to opposing passers.
None was as important as the first for the Panthers (2-5). On the Cards' first possession, Palmer was getting pulled down on a third-down pass. While his arm was grabbed, Palmer looked like he tried to flip the ball forward on a shovel pass and it landed on the ground.
Instead of calling it incomplete, however, the officials let the play go as a fumble. Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis picked it up and returned it 46 yards for a touchdown. Palmer was so sure it was a pass that he mimed his arm going forward before Davis even picked up the ball.
Arians said the officials on the field told him the replay booth did not see a reason to review.
"It was an obvious pass, I thought," Palmer said. "I'm surprised they didn't see it that way."
When he was upright, Palmer played well. He finished 35-of-46 for 363 yards and three touchdowns, his one error the Ealy pick. The passing game was needed, because Johnson never did get started. Johnson gained just 24 yards on 10 rushing attempts – because of the deficit, the only rushing attempts of the game for Arizona.
Cam Newton was more effective on the ground (43 yards on seven carries) than the air (14-of-27, 212 yards) but the Panthers used their defense and Stewart (95 yards and two scores) .
The Cardinals also had an uncommon 10 penalties, including a rash of flags early in the fourth quarter that derailed a drive down 16. At one point, Andre Ellington had made a long catch to the Carolina 28-yard line – only to have the play called back for hands to the face, followed by a 15-yard flag on Palmer for arguing.
Palmer said the extent of his complaint was, "Are you freaking kidding me? That's three flags in a row!" But it cost the Cards a second-and-44 situation they couldn't get out of.
"It's not ideal to be in those situations," Palmer said of both the penalties and the early fumble decision. "But you have to block that out."
The Cardinals have two weeks to regroup, next playing at home against the 49ers. "We understand what it takes to win ballgames," cornerback Patrick Peterson said, but his team has to figure out how to do it consistently.
The season is half over. Time is running out.
"This could throw a wrench into everything," Minter said. "If we don't win out, we could be in trouble."
Images from the Cardinals' Week 8 game in Carolina