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Special Teams Struggles in Carolina

Notebook: Fitzgerald doesn't think about future; Cro's pick; Fells gets first TD

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Justin Bethel comes up with a fumbled punt return during the Cardinals' playoff loss to the Panthers Saturday.


CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Ted Ginn was not trying to make up for a fledgling offense. He didn't feel undue pressure to make a play.

His fumble on a kickoff return in the third quarter Saturday may have been a critical blow to the Cardinals' upset chances, but it wasn't anything bigger than a physical error, he said.

"I went and did my individual duties, and I had a mistake," said Ginn following the 27-16 loss to the Panthers in the NFC wild card round.

"It comes with the game."

The Panthers had just taken a 20-14 lead and kicked off to Ginn with 5:36 remaining in the third quarter. Graham Gano's boot went to the back part of the end zone, and Ginn's decision to bring it out was a small error that grew larger.

He was hit by Carolina cornerback Melvin White at the 8, and while running back Marion Grice nearly jumped on the loose ball, it squirted away and linebacker Kevin Reddick recovered for the Panthers at the Arizona 3. They scored a touchdown four plays later for the final points.

Ginn's gaffe wasn't the only issue on special teams. Drew Butler punted nine times for an average of only 34.8 yards, including consecutive 20- and 28-yarders to start the game as Carolina started with great field position and racked up 10 points.

"I had a good warm-up, I went through everything I normally do in my pregame and I felt pretty good going into it," Butler said. "It was just a bad day to have a bad day. I didn't help the defense out. My job is to help win field position and I contributed to us not winning field position, so it was tough."

Butler fared better in the second half, but a 31-yard punt midway through the third quarter put the Panthers in Arizona territory to begin their drive, and they wasted little time, scoring on a 39-yard screen pass to Fozzy Whittaker to take the lead preceding Ginn's fumble.

Butler said his poor performance was due to a mechanical issue and that the slick conditions were not a factor.

"My drop was clearly inside," Butler said. "I kept hitting the same ball and I was trying as hard as I could to correct it on the field, but I wasn't able to make that in-game adjustment until late, and it cost us, for sure."

Pro Bowl special teamer Justin Bethel recovered a muffed punt to lead to the Cardinals' first points, but overall the special teams wasn't sharp, and a team down to its third-string quarterback needed more efficiency in that phase to pull the upset.

FITZGERALD NOT THINKING ABOUT FUTURE

Wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald has a high salary cap number which will likely need to be addressed this offseason, but he wasn't ready to look that far forward in the aftermath of the contest.

"The taste of defeat is the only thing I can think about right now," Fitzgerald said. "That's all that's on my mind. I'm just proud of the guys in this locker room. It's been a great season competing with these fellas and this coaching staff. I'm proud of the way guys conducted themselves and worked hard. That's all I'm thinking about at this point."

Fitzgerald finished the game with three catches for 31 yards. He was stopped at the 1-yard-line on a 14-yard gain in the second quarter to set up a touchdown. Quarterback Ryan Lindley targeted Fitzgerald a pair of times near or in the end zone in the second half as the Cardinals aimed to cut into a 13-point deficit, but both passes were intercepted.

On the first one, Carolina linebacker Luke Kuechly jumped the throw and Fitzgerald could do nothing but tackle him. On the second, Lindley tried to squeeze it between multiple defenders but Kuechly tipped it and safety Tre Boston hauled it in to effectively wrap up the victory.

CROMARTIE DOESN'T MISS SECOND SHOT AT PICK

Cornerback Antonio Cromartie had an early chance at an interception when he read a Cam Newton pass, but a collision with Carolina wide

receiver Philly Brown allowed it to fall incomplete. He didn't waste his second opportunity, stepping in front of a throw and returning it 50 yards to the Carolina 17 with 4:54 left in the second quarter.

"His receiver got picked and he still threw it," Cromartie said. "It was just making a play, capitalizing on it and going from there."

The Cardinals turned that turnover into a touchdown – like they also did after Bethel's fumble recovery – to take a 14-10 lead. The defense forced one more turnover when safety Rashad Johnson set up the first-and-goal from the 8 with a fumble recovery, but Lindley was intercepted on the next play.

Cromartie said the inability to capitalize on mistakes in the second half played a big role in the outcome.

"We ended up turning the ball right back over," Cromartie said. "If you want to build championship teams, there are certain things you just can't do."

FELLS CATCHES FIRST CAREER TOUCHDOWN PASS

Tight end Darren Fells doesn't have a regular season touchdown reception in his career but came away with one less than 16 minutes into his first postseason game.

It came on a play-action pass on a first-and-goal from the 1 with 14:56 remaining in the second quarter, giving the Cardinals their first points and cutting the deficit to 10-7. It was an easy throw-and-catch as the Panthers sold out to stop the run.

"It definitely was a bittersweet day for me," Fells said. "At that point we were down, so I was just excited to put some points on the board and then try to get back to that lead."



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