The combination of a poor NFC Championship Game performance and running into the buzz saw that is the Carolina Panthers contributed to the Arizona Cardinals bowing out of the 2015 season in gruesome fashion.
It's tough to spin a 49-15 defeat in a conference title game in a positive light—in fact, it's impossible. But in time, the Cardinals will realize their window of opportunity in the NFC isn't shutting. A seasoned and determined Arizona team should emerge, ready to fight for a long-awaited Super Bowl in 2016.
Carson Palmer's MVP-caliber season led the Cardinals to this point, and he even got a career monkey off his back by winning a postseason game last weekend against Green Bay. His Cardinals just weren't a match for Carolina this weekend, however, and his struggles mirrored that.
Palmer was inconsistent throughout, going 23-for-40 with 235 yards and four interceptions to his one touchdown. His last one came long after the Panthers had already iced their NFC championship cake, with Luke Kuechly taking one to the house in the closing minutes.
That last turnover pushed Arizona toward a not-so-enthralling spot in the history books, as ESPN Stats & Info noted:
7 turnovers by Cardinals are the most by any team in any playoff game since the Packers had 8 in the 2001 NFC Divisional Playoff at Rams— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) January 25, 2016
Palmer's crew faced a caliber of defense that it never saw throughout their 13-3 season, limiting the rushing attack that fuels the passing scheme to 60 yards. Rookie David Johnson—one of many bright spots all season that gives Cardinals fans plenty of hope for the future—was largely bottled up, despite racking up all the team's rushing yards.
It wasn't the rookie, but the veteran signal-caller who got much of the flak for the offense's dismantling Sunday. But head coach Bruce Arians was quick to deflect blame from his quarterback and his presumed injured finger, per Around the NFL:
Arians: “Carson didn’t lose the damn game. There’s nothing wrong with his damn finger."— Around The NFL (@AroundTheNFL) January 25, 2016
The easy conclusion to make is that Palmer, despite his breakthrough last week in the form of a playoff win, can't make it happen against elite defenses when it counts.
Overall, there will be detractors aplenty for Arizona after being embarrassed on the national stage Sunday. But taking this game out of context would be a mistake, as Jason Fitzgerald of OverTheCap.com noted:
What is amazing is how one game is going to change everyones offseason opinion of a team. Cardinals will be totally written off after this— Jason_OTC (@Jason_OTC) January 25, 2016
That's not the reality of this season, however. The reality is that without this magical and dominant run by the Carolina Panthers and Cam Newton, Palmer would be sporting an MVP from this season and the Cardinals would've likely represented the NFC in Santa Clara.
With a swarming and physical defense that played without one of the NFL's best defensive players in Tyrann Mathieu down the stretch, the Cardinals are as well-positioned as anyone to contend in the NFC next season. Arians agrees, doubling down on his team with the following proclamation, per Around the NFL:
Arians says it’s "Super Bowl or bust" in 2016.— Around The NFL (@AroundTheNFL) January 25, 2016
The Cardinals may not have matched up well against the Panthers, but nobody really has done that all season. That will be a problem if they meet up again in this same spot next January, but Arizona also has 365 days to work toward that potential shot at redemption.
A blowout loss during a title shot will do one of two things to a team going forward—cripple them mentally, or galvanize the whole team into coming together and redeeming itself. This Cardinals squad is much more of the latter, as its collective character shows, from Larry Fitzgerald to Mathieu, Patrick Peterson and the rest of its leaders.
Counting out the Arizona Cardinals will be a popular trend following Sunday's loss, but not a wise one. Arians will have them back and hungrier than ever when the 2016 season kicks off.