Quarterback Carson Palmer (3) walks off the field with coach Bruce Arians (right) and head athletic trainer Tom Reed after Palmer hurt his left knee in Sunday's 31-14 win over St. Louis.
The win was exhilarating once again, a fourth-quarter comeback that featured a touchdown bomb to John Brown and a defense that turned in six sacks, three turnovers and two touchdowns.
And it raised the Cardinals to more lofty heights, a 31-14 win over the St. Louis Rams at University of Phoenix Stadium to make their record 8-1 for the first time in franchise history since 1948.
But left in the pit of the team's collective stomach was the fourth-quarter scene of starting quarterback Carson Palmer lying on the grass, having twisted down in agony without a hit, his left knee hurt – the same knee Palmer had to have reconstructed in 2006 after multiple ligaments were shredded in a January playoff game.
Coach Bruce Arians said after the game the actual injury and its severity were unknown, until tests were performed Monday.
Multiple media reports said the ACL could be torn, which would end Palmer's season. While backup Drew Stanton once again arrived to lead the Cardinals to a win, it was a harsh sidelight to what should have been another feel-good game during a season full of them.
"You see a guy, a captain, one of the big leaders on your team, you see him lying down on the ground, we're human – before Carson is our quarterback, he's our friend," wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald said. "You know his kids, you know his wife, and those are the things you think about.
"Then you look up there on the clock and you look at your teammates and you realize we are on a journey together. There are going to be bumps in the road and you have to be able to weather those rough times."
One more time, that's exactly what the Cardinals did.
The Cards couldn't run the ball (28 total yards in the game, with Andre Ellington getting just 23 on 18 carries.) They were having trouble scoring, down 14-10 when Palmer got hurt. And Palmer even threw a rare interception, cutting short a trip inside the St. Louis red zone.
The Rams (3-6), who have made life miserable for their NFC West brethren, were doing it again, punishing the Cardinals repeatedly. There was irony, then, during a game where Palmer was repeatedly hit or sacked, that he crumpled to the turf practically untouched, just trying to avoid a blitz. To make matters worse, rookie kicker Chandler Catanzaro then missed a 53-yard field goal, his first miss of the season in 18 tries.
With about 11 minutes left, the game was in the hands of Stanton and the defense. Neither would disappoint.
A three-and-out put the ball in Stanton's hands for the first time. He hit tight end Rob Housler for 11 yards. He scrambled for four yards. He found tight end John Carlson for 26 yards. And then, moving in the pocket, Stanton heaved a 48-yard bomb to a streaking Brown, who made an amazing diving catch for a go-ahead touchdown.
"It's unfortunate when something like that happens but it's also in your job description to be ready," Stanton said. "That (pass) was something we had in the game plan all along. We knew we wanted to get to it, and taking that shot to Smokey was huge. We did exactly what we wanted."
Rams quarterback Austin Davis had little chance after that. The Cardinals' defense hadn't played poorly most of the game – save for a 59-yard touchdown bomb to tight end Jared Cook, beating rookie safety
Deone Bucannon – but its level after the Palmer injury changed.
"As far as hitting our quarterback, we definitely took that personal," cornerback Patrick Peterson said. "When Carson went down, obviously it was a non-contact injury, but after he went down, we just wanted to win this ballgame that much more, and try and tee off on their quarterback."
Peterson was the catalyst, making his first two interceptions of the season – including a highlight reel pick-6 that started when he tipped an already tipped pass to himself and then racing in for a touchdown. Fellow cornerback Antonio Cromartie grabbed a fumble created by a Kareem Martin sack and returned it for a score.
Defensive end Calais Campbell, meanwhile, was dominant the whole game with two sacks and four tackles for loss. The Cardinals ended up with the six sacks total, when they had just eight in the first eight games of the season.
The Rams, who rushed for 40 yards on their first touchdown drive, had just 70 yards rushing for the game.
Fitzgerald led the Cardinals with a third straight good game, making nine receptions for 112 yards. Palmer finished 25-of-36 for 241 yards and the one interception before getting hurt.
The attention now turns to Palmer's knee. Palmer just signed a three-year contract extension Friday – worth a reported $20 million in guarantees – and now there is big question whether Palmer will be available. If he isn't, it's not an easy thing for a good team to handle in a quarterback-driven league.
But in a season that has been special for the Cardinals despite setback after setback after setback, maybe it's fitting Arians' club might have to deal with the ultimate test.
"Anytime your quarterback goes down and he gets hit like that you think it's going to be serious," Arians said. "I wanted to go out (on the field) and see. It's always different for your quarterback than it is for anybody else. It is always 'Next man up,' but for me, it's a little bit different."