CHARLOTTE, N.C. – By many numbers, the season was the best the Cardinals had ever had.
But after the NFC Championship got sideways Sunday night in Carolina and the Panthers had beat up the Cardinals, 49-15, to reach Super Bowl 50 and end the Cards' season, coach Bruce Arians was blunt.
"Unless you put a ring on your finger, the season is not a success," Arians said.
"I never saw this coming myself."
It was ugly, from the first quarter when the Panthers – now 17-1 – built a 17-0 lead, to defensive breakdowns to the worst game quarterback Carson Palmer has had as a Cardinal. Needing a big game from their signal-caller, Palmer instead threw four interceptions and lost two fumbles, six of the Cards' seven turnovers.
"I kept digging us a hole," Palmer said.
Arians was quick to defend his quarterback – "Carson did not lose the damn game, there's nothing wrong with his damn finger," Arians evenly pointed out during his opening statement – and in truth, Palmer wasn't the only culprit.
In fact, "we didn't play near well enough," Arians said, "especially our best players."
Cornerback Patrick Peterson had a costly fumble on a punt return. Defensive tackle Calais Campbell was offsides twice. Wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald dropped a couple of passes he normally would have caught. Cornerback Justin Bethel struggled. And the secondary as a whole gave up pass plays of 39, 54 and 86 yards.
"You don't lose this badly playing your best ball," Campbell said, adding that he agreed with Arians' assessment.
"It hurts to say it but it's true."
The Panthers showed why they have been the NFL's best team all season, but the Cardinals did have a sequence in the second quarter that might've changed the course of the game – but they couldn't stop making mistakes.
The first was after the Cardinals had finally scored a touchdown – a one-yard touchdown run by David Johnson – to pull within 17-7, and then forced a Carolina punt, which was shanked short.
Peterson raced up, hoping to grab it on the dead run past a Carolina cover unit that had left a sideline alley. But Peterson took his eye off the ball as it came in, and it bounced off his arm and was recovered by Panthers defensive back Teddy Williams – a former Cardinal. Five plays later, Panthers quarterback Cam Newton leaped over the goalline for a one-yard touchdown.
Later in the second quarter, the Cardinals avoided damage from a Palmer fumble when Peterson picked off a Newton overthrow and raced 72 yards back to the Carolina 22. A touchdown would have put the Cards within 10 at halftime, but on first down, Palmer tried to hit John Brown in the end zone and never saw Panthers safety Kurt Coleman waiting there for the interception.
It was a carbon copy of the end-zone interception Palmer threw at the end of the Pittsburgh loss earlier this season.
"We tried to make too much happen too soon on that play," Arians said.
Palmer acknowledged he started forcing throws in an effort to get the Cardinals back in the game.
"The lead just snowballed and got out of control," said Palmer, who echoed his coach by saying once again his finger was not an issue.
Arians also said the fact the defense allowed a field goal drive to open the second half – eating up more than seven minutes of clock – didn't help.
Those might have just been details the way the Panthers played. Other than his interception, Newton was flawless, a 180-degree turn from the performance he had against the Cardinals in last year's Wild Card game. Showing why he will be the NFL MVP, Newton had 335 yards passing on only 19 completions, throwing for two touchdowns and running in two others. He rushed for 47 yards on 10 carries.
Newton is the Broncos' problem now as Carolina will head into the Super Bowl as favorite. The Cardinals go back to the offseason knowing the team will change as always as General Manager Steve Keim tinkers with the roster.
"This wasn't the goal, to get to the NFC Championship, it was to get to the Super Bowl," cornerback Jerraud Powers said. "It shows the improvement this team has made since the coaching change (in 2013). The winning ways, the atmosphere is established now. It's a matter of us now winning the Super Bowl.
"It still seems like a failure because we didn't reach our ultimate goal."
Arians couldn't help but feel the same.
"If that confetti is not falling on your head, it's a bad year," Arians said. "You've got to look back and there were a lot of positive things, but we're not about that. We are about winning a championship."
Images from the NFC Championship game on Sunday night