You can’t lose as badly as the Cardinals did without having enough blame to go around. But given his stat line, the visibility of his position, and the questions throughout his career arc that this season was supposed to shake, this will be remembered as Carson Palmer’s personal meltdown.
The 49-15 blowout loss was a true team effort. (And this probably can’t be said enough: the Panthers are just that good.) But the questions for head coach Bruce Arians circled around Palmer, who tossed four interceptions and lost two fumbles in a truly Delhommean nightmare. Did the pressure get to him? Was he feeling the effects of a dislocated finger suffered last month? Arians didn’t mess around with his answer.
“Carson didn’t lose the damn game,” Arians said. “There’s nothing wrong with his damn finger. You can keep them questions. We just didn’t play well enough. Our best players, especially, didn’t play well enough.”
True enough. His offensive line didn’t do Palmer any favors. Nor did Larry Fitzgerald’s drops. The defense couldn’t make tackles, allowing Carolina a series of huge plays, and the secondary couldn’t stop Greg Olsen. And for all of Palmer’s turnovers, none may have been as back-breaking as Patrick Peterson’s second-quarter muffed punt, just when it looked like the Cardinals might be clawing back some momentum. To lose by 34 points, especially in a conference championship game, you usually have to get beaten on pretty much every unit.
But, Palmer. “This is as low as you can feel,” he said afterward. This was what he’d waited his whole career for, through tough times with the Bengals and the Raiders, two teams he functionally quit on when it was clear they were stuck in neutral. These Cardinals fielded the most talented roster Palmer’s ever played with, but this was all new to him: it was the first road playoff game of his career. And if he came out nervous and conservative against Green Bay last week, he was recklessly aggressive against a Panthers team primed to take advantage. “I kept digging us a hole we couldn’t get out of it,” Palmer said.
Palmer insisted his health was fine, but he hasn’t been the same passer since dislocating his right index finger in Week 15 against Philadelphia. Before the injury: 32 touchdowns and nine interceptions. After the injury (though against exclusively good defenses): seven TDs and nine INTs.
It was a very bad night against a very good team, and should not serve as an isolated referendum on Palmer’s curious career. But he is running out of time to make a better impression: he’s 36 years old, an age when it’s rare for a QB to have his career-best season, and even rarer to keep it up. The Cardinals are good enough to be back here next year, but even if this loss wasn’t Palmer’s fault, they’re not going to win without him.