Defensive tackle Ed Stinson looks up at the video board during the NFC Championship game loss to the Panthers.
The Cardinals were a dejected, despondent group after their 49-15 loss to the Panthers in the NFC Championship game on Sunday night.
Wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald was the most emotional in his postgame press conference, as he fully understood the difficulty in reaching that peak.
"It stings," Fitzgerald said in a barely audible whisper. "You work really hard to get to this position, and to come up short in this fashion, it really hurts."
The players were back at the team's training facility on Monday morning to clean out their lockers and conduct exit interviews. While there still weren't many smiles, there was a dose of perspective. The loss was a punch to the gut, but coach Bruce Arians was "very proud" of what the Cardinals accomplished as a whole.
"Unless the confetti is coming down on you and you're putting rings on, the season's not successful," Arians said. "That being said, there were a lot of good things that happened this year – goals that were met, big, big plays, big games. I thought our team grew, dramatically, from last year to this year. Hopefully, we can make that next step next year by learning from this."
The Cardinals won a franchise-record 13 regular season games and an NFC West championship. They earned the No. 2 seed in the NFC and played like a Super Bowl contender throughout.
Right now, the thickest black cloud hanging over them surrounds the performance of quarterback Carson Palmer, who threw four interceptions and fumbled twice in the loss. The narrative is that Palmer can't perform in the postseason, and he acknowledged that it will remain.
"It's just one of those things you've got to break through," Palmer said, "and I will."
"Less than 24 hours after your season ends, it's hard to start thinking about the next season without dwelling on the past and thinking about the last game," Palmer added. "But it'll definitely fuel my fire. It will fuel our fire as a team. We'll bounce back."
Arians is excited about the direction of the franchise. It has improved from 10 to 11 to now 13 wins in three seasons under his direction, and a majority of the team's key performers are under contract for 2016. This offseason will be more about tinkering than overhaul for General Manager Steve Keim.
"Oh, God," Arians said. "Looking at the team that's coming back versus where we were this time last year, very few holes to fill. Steve's already off starting to do it and this offseason already has begun."
Expectations will be high heading into next year, which is a credit to the leaps the organization has made. No longer is the goal a .500 season or a Wild Card berth. A Super Bowl title is realistic.
"I think, for one, just changing the culture around here," said safety Tyrann Mathieu, when asked what could be taken from the season. "Becoming a winning football team, having some type of respect in the NFL; our fan base, bringing those guys closer to us; breaking records -- a lot of guys had career years. So there's a lot to be proud of, but at the end of the day, the only reason we play is to win a championship."
Falling short of that goal is why, ultimately, there was a tinge of disbelief still emanating from the locker room. Palmer said it's weird to work so hard for months, to enter a game exceedingly confident, and then watch it go up in a puff of smoke.
Here today, gone tomorrow.
Silver linings remain, and defensive tackle Frostee Rucker believes the crushing defeat will help drive the team this offseason. One thing is for sure: He doesn't want to explain himself again like this before next year's Super Bowl.
"It's unfortunate that we have to think about it that way," Rucker said. "We were 60 minutes away from playing in our dream game, but yeah, if you've got to take things from this, you've got to look at the positives. We know we have a great core of guys. We'll be able to do some great things. We're growing, we're jelling together, and it's just one step at a time. We got to the NFC Championship game and came up short, but if you look at our track record, the next one should be the Super Bowl."