Cardinals defenders celebrate and congratulate linebacker Paris Lenon (51) after Lenon made the game-winning tackle Sunday against Carolina.
Emotions were considerable prior to Sunday's season-opener, with the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and everything the NFL did to honor the date.
The Cardinals managed to create a lot of emotion once their game against Carolina began, however, leaving an exhausted but relieved team after a 28-21 win over the Panthers at University of Phoenix Stadium.
"I'm dead (tired) right now," said quarterback Kevin Kolb, although it was with a smile on his face.
Linebacker Paris Lenon managed to pull Panthers running back Mike Goodson down at the Arizona 2-yard line after a four-yard gain on fourth-and-5 with just 1:14 left to allow the Cards to hang on to the victory.
It prevented the Panthers (0-1) from capitalizing on Cam Newton's unbelievable debut (422 yards passing, most ever from a rookie in his first start) and made sure the Cards didn't suffer from their inability to twice get points after getting inside the Carolina 10-yard line in the first half.
There was also the feeling it provided tangible proof the Cards (1-0) have changed.
"I'm not exactly sure we would have won that game last year," coach Ken Whisenhunt said.
There were certainly ways it could have been lost. But trailing, 21-14, early in the fourth quarter and faced with a third-and-7, Kolb read perfectly a blitz by Carolina and found wide receiver Early Doucet on the hot read. Doucet caught it about 10 yards downfield and then – all alone – raced the remaining 60 yards for the game-tying touchdown.
"All throughout the week, Kevin told us when they were blitzing in that coverage to look (back) quickly and not get too deep into your route," Doucet said. "That's what I did. He saw me. I was surprised it was that wide open."
The other two facets of the Cards' units weren't going to be left out. After Newton moved the ball near midfield, he found himself flushed out of the pocket on third-and-10 with nothing but wide-open field to the right. But reserve cornerback Richard Marshall, coming in late (and who was called for an early roughness penalty on Newton that set up the Panthers' second touchdown) managed to pull down Newton by his foot for a sack that forced a punt.
Rookie cornerback Patrick Peterson then gathered in the kick at his own 11-yard line and exploded up the middle, breaking an early tackle and streaking 89 yards for what ended up to be the game-winning points.
He almost started celebrating too early – high-stepping around the 20, only to realize there was a Panther right behind him – before getting back into gear and leaping, ball outstretched, into the end zone.
"That's my duty, to make plays," Peterson said.
It made up for the many things Whisenhunt said the Cardinals still need to "clean up." Running back Beanie Wells had 90 yards and a touchdown on 18 carries, but the inability with he and Kolb to connect on a pitch play on the Carolina 6-yard line – Kolb took full responsibility, saying he left it on Wells' back hip – caused a Cards' lost fumble. A 15-yard crackback blocking penalty on receiver Andre Roberts cost the Cards another trip inside Carolina's 10, and reliable kicker Jay Feely somehow missed the ensuing 36-yard field goal to compound the frustration.
Larry Fitzgerald was bracketed in coverage most of the game, getting only three catches, but one was a 34-yarder late that helped flip field position and provided the Cards' defense with just enough leeway to come up with their final stop.
"Turnovers early were tough," Fitzgerald said. "Whenever you are in the red zone, you want to at least walk away with three points. You can't turn it over. (Offensive coordinator) Mike Miller addressed that. We can't continue to shoot ourselves in the foot."
That's always easier to handle after a victory. Whisenhunt said that it would have been easy to hammer away at his team at halftime, when they were trailing 14-7 following the missed scoring opportunities. But he didn't.
"It didn't feel right to do that," Whisenhunt said.
Instead, the Cardinals are trying to look big picture. Newton tied Matthew Stafford's record for most passing yards by a rookie in a game, completing 24-of-37 for two touchdowns and an interception (and rushing for a touchdown). The Cards blitzed often, but their ability to pressure Newton was inconsistent.
Yet the Cards only gave up seven points after halftime. Lenon sniffed out the final pass to Goodson – "I knew they would try to bump me to put me in a position to be out of place, so I aligned myself … to be able to make a play," Lenon said – and made Kolb's Arizona debut stand up.
"We were lucky to win a game like that," said Kolb, who finished 18-of-27 for 309 yards and two touchdowns. "At the same time, we're 1-0."