Sunday evening game in Carolina. East Coast blizzard left Charlotte encased in ice. Flights were cancelled in and out of the area. IQestionable whether any Arizona-based Cardinal fans could make the trip.
Panthers were talked about in super-hero rhetoric - Cam Newton was a large physical strong-armed passer who could run. Jonathon Stewart was the second coming of Marshawn Lynch. Keuchly and Brown were All Pro linebackers. Ditto Josh Norman at CB.
The hype surrounding the Cards was almost equally over the top, but there were more than a few "yeah-buts" from the media hordes. Carson Palmer was up for MVP. Fitz a shoe-in for HOF. The deep, talented receiving corps might prove too much for a shallow Panther secondary. But: Palmer had been making poor passing decisions in recent games. The Cards couldn't run against Seattle or GB. Would Carolina try to physically beat up/wear down Bucannon (a MLB in a safety's body)?
Cards Blown Out by Panthers 49 - 15.
The Bottom Line:
Hey Cards: No Super Bowl for You!
Carolina was predictable - playing to expections in all facets of the game. Cards "played down" to the level most of us feared.
Carolina opened up an early 10 point lead, and it already was beginning to look like "Blow Out City", but the Cards seemed to regain their sea-legs and looked as if they might launch a comeback midway in the second quarter only have their effort derailed by a Peterson muffed punt. Cards continued to fall apart at the seams later in the second half, setting a record for the number of turnovers-allowed with 7. (Turnovers were equal-opportunity: 4 interceptions/3 fumbles).
Cam Newton did all but don a cape - he threw with accuracy, made good decisions and "ran tough." His counterpart, Carson Palmer, threw with inconsistent accuracy, seemed rattled by the Carolina pass rush and he tried to force passes into tight windows but without elite zip. His OL failed to give him the extra half-second he needed to deliver the ball in the right places at the right times. The Cardinal secondary gave way too much cushion to Carolina receivers. Cardinal open field tacklers looked like cardboard cutouts for Panther ballcarriers run around and through at will.
As we neared the playoffs, entered the playoffs and beat Green Bay, the Cardinals received a surprising amount of love from members of the football media. As Cardinal fans, we enjoyed the high fives from workers at our local NJ ShopRite who spotted our AZ Cardinal baseball cap and wished us good luck. (Frankly, we were a little bit nervous about the size of the positive vibe - because we weren't sure if it was fully deserved and actually might jinx the team).
At least, however, we figured that, if we gave the Panthers a run for their money, we'd still receive those high-fives at ShopRite well into the offseason and preseason. Well, we didn't give them a run for their money and will go down in history as that fumbling, bumbling (same old Cardinals) team that committed a record 7 turnovers and set countless other records committed by a blow-outee.
The thumping by the Panthers came as somewhat of a shock (we were primed to accept that they might be better than we were, but didn't anticipate the teams total collapse by games' end. No doubt there will be overreaction by the pundits. I hope that, instead of the all-to-familiar "fire the coach" "cut 'em all" or "sell the team" bleats of outrage, cooler heads will objectively determine "what went wrong" and what we can do about it? Here's what I think:
When you handicap all 32 teams, the Cardinals still fall within the Top 8 (To Carolina, Denver, New England and the Cards, you might want to throw in PIttsburgh, Seattle, KC and Cincy). So what's preventing us from raising our play from #5 - #8 into the Top 2 or 3?
Keeping things on a positive note: (1) The team lacks consistency throughout the lineup (This isn't to say that, throughout the roster, our players cannot play at a high level - the problem is that "occasional lapses" happen too frequently (Whether it be Carson Palmer throwing a balloon into a tight window or Rashad Johnson missing an open field tackle or a LB getting sucked in on a reverse). This is as much a coaching issue as it is a roster issue. (2) the team cannot afford to get rattled in tough situations. When things went wrong, too many players tried to turn into super-heros instead of doing their jobs. The defense blew too many coverages yesterday to be considered a playoff team. (3) we've been getting it done with duct-tape across the defensive roster - we still are not big enough or tough enough on both the O-line and D-line, our LB's collectively, lacked a half-step and wore down and our secondary - PP21 included - must be considered overrated. (4) (& we're not sure about this) during the latter part of the season, it seemed as if other teams (like Seattle, GB and Carolina) improved more than we did. Were we too content to rest on our laurels? Should we coach-up our players better and more proactively?
Some of our weaknesses can be overcome via personnel moves (free agency or the draft). Others through better coaching. And where we can't fix them, the Cardinal staff will have to motor-on (i.e. more duct-tape and calls to AARP), but as we've seen, some of those weaknesses can still be exposed by better football teams).
The shame in all this is that we were oh so close, but in retrospect, "oh so far."