They can’t blame Ryan Lindley this time.
With a trip to Super Bowl 50 hanging in the balance, the Cardinals’ biggest stars imploded in their postseason rematch with the Panthers, ending in a 49-15 loss.
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“Great players play great in big games,” Arizona coach Bruce Arians said when he raved about Larry Fitzgerald’s sterling performance last week. “And that’s how you get to the Hall of Fame. Some guys shrivel in the moment, some guys flourish in the moment.”
Carson Palmer was a legitimate MVP candidate this season. Patrick Peterson was the NFL’s dominant lockdown cornerback. Fitzgerald has a strong argument as the greatest postseason receiver in history. All three shriveled in the moment.
The seven turnovers from Palmer and Peterson were the most by any team in a playoff game since the Packers’ eight in a 2001 loss to the Rams.
“We just didn’t play well enough,” Arians said after the loss. “Our best players especially didn’t play well enough.”
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Peterson’s muffed punt was a critical gaffe, negating the Cardinals’ momentum by blowing an opportunity to recover from an early 17-0 deficit.
Fitzgerald dropped two passes Sunday after flubbing just one on 268 targets over the past two years.
While those two perennial Pro Bowlers are certain to bounce back next season, it’s fair to wonder how Palmer’s postseason collapse will affect his confidence going forward.
Coming off a shaky start versus Green Bay in the Divisional Round, Palmer battled jitters again in Carolina, throwing four interceptions and losing two fumbles to the Panthers’ opportunistic defense.
Palmer hasn’t been the same since suffering an injury to the index finger of his throwing hand, posting a 56.7 completion rate, 5:7 TD-to-INT ratio and a 65.5 passer rating in the last three games compared to 64.7, 34:10 and 106.8 in his first 16 weeks of the season.
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There is no hard-and-fast deadline, but the team wants to know by the middle of February to collaborate on plans entering free agency, considering the monetary impact would be significant. Key team people think both will come back, but that might be based on hope. The reality is, few know. There have been no guarantees.
Last offseason, Fitzgerald told KMVP-FM that the two stalwarts walking away together is something to consider. On his future, Fitz said, “A lot of it’s tied to Carson.”
In fact, a source informed of Fitz’s thinking said that if Palmer walks away, it might be harder for Fitzgerald to return unless he knows who will replace Palmer.
Fitzgerald is due to make $11 million in 2017, while Palmer is set to make $17.5 million in salary and bonuses. Both signed contract extensions in August, but neither deal is expected to impact any retirement decision. If the money is freed up, the Cardinals would have the cash to go get a veteran quarterback such as Tony Romo or Mike Glennon.
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If he does retire, Fitzgerald, 33, literally will go out at the top of his game — his last catch was a touchdown and he has a string of 195 straight games catching a pass. He was the NFL’s season leader in receptions with 107. As for Palmer, he’d cap off a career that included him figuring prominently in the resurrection of the Cardinals.
None of this is a surprise. In September, Fitzgerald was telling friends he expected 2016 to be his last year, and he was planning like it. As of December, he was still mulling over whether he will return. Palmer has been much more vague, saying only that he expects to keep playing, but he hasn’t made a definitive decision.
Both are more than set financially, having made more than $100 million each during their careers.
With Fitzgerald set to return, the big question for the Cardinals is if quarterback Carson Palmer will be back. Fitzgerald’s decision could be a good sign that Palmer will return too. Those who know them well say the two are tied at the hip, Rapoport added.
“There’s a much more of a physical determination to be made for Carson Palmer,” Rapoport reported on Super Bowl Live on Thursday. “He wants to return and has said if he’s feeling OK physically, that he will be back. But from what understand, this was the most taxing season for him — really in his career. He got beat up, was dealing with several nagging injuries, he just did not feel great. And even, as of recently, was still struggling to feel like him old self.”
Coach Bruce Arians can breathe a little easier knowing his top receiver will be back next season. Earlier this week at the Waste Management Open golf tournament in Scottsdale, Arizona, Arians sounded positive that both would be back but hadn’t heard anything official.
“It’s up to them,” Arians said. “I feel comfortable with where they are at and what’s going to happen. Like everyone, I have my fingers crossed. I think when the juices start flowing and the injuries go away, they’ll come back. But there is nothing to confirm yet.”
Now we just need to see if Palmer wants to come back for another season. There is no hard-and-fast deadline, but the team wants to know by the middle of February to collaborate on plans as they prepare for the free-agent signing period.