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Cardinals' Carson Palmer fails on biggest stage of career

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Sunday night was Carson Palmer’s chance to silence the critics and show he was worthy of joining the ranks of the Mannings, Bradys and Rodgers of the NFL as an elite quarterback.

He had already toppled one of them -- Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers in the NFC divisional round last week -- to win his first playoff game. Next up was Carolina’s Cam Newton in Sunday’s NFC Championship Game. After Newton, it would’ve been Denver’s Peyton Manning in Super Bowl 50.

Palmer had waited 13 years for the opportunity.

But he blew it.

He was one game from a Super Bowl, in the national spotlight, in a battle of potential MVPs and threw four interceptions. He lost the ball twice on fumbles. He couldn’t get the offense moving. Sunday’s 49-15 loss to the Carolina Panthers can’t solely be placed on his shoulders; the Cardinals’ defense did little to slow Newton and Carolina's offensive juggernaut.

However, it was Palmer who couldn’t live up to the pressure that comes with a playoff game.

"I kept digging us in a hole we couldn't get out of," Palmer said.

"We continued to fight, but it was just too much to overcome."

The second-highest-scoring offense in the league scraped together 15 points. The face of that? Palmer. A week after he made questionable throws against the Packers and it was revealed that he scripted safe plays early, Palmer didn’t look any better. At times it felt like he was forcing deep passes for the sake of it. He sailed a pass early and threw one into the ground. He couldn’t find a flow all game. He was partly to blame, but the offensive line also allowed him to be pressured all game.

And that leads to this question: Will Palmer have another chance at the the Super Bowl?

He’s 36. Star wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald is 32. The offense looked untouchable but tailed off in the final weeks of the regular season and in the playoffs.

Can Palmer be the quarterback he was in 2015 again in 2016? Or was Sunday night his last chance at a title?

What were they thinking? The momentum had shifted. Arizona had held the Panthers to a three-and-out, then scored on a 10-play, 79-yard drive to cut into Carolina’s lead, 17-7. Arizona then held Carolina to another three-and-out on the ensuing drive, but cornerback Patrick Peterson muffed the punt while trying to catch it on the run. Carolina recovered and scored on the resulting drive to take a 24-7 lead.

One reason to get excited: The future at running back is very bright. Rookie David Johnson tried to put the Cardinals’ offense on his back Sunday with not much going right. He’ll simply get better, faster and stronger in his second season and that can be a concern for defenses.

One reason to panic: Last year’s late-season meltdown was expected. Palmer was out with an injury. But this season was different. Palmer was healthy and playing the best football of his career. But poor showings in the season finale and then in the playoffs have to be a concern for the Cardinals.

Ouch: Defensive tackle Josh Mauro left the game with a right calf injury in the first half and didn’t return.

Game ball: Johnson was the only Cardinal to make any sort of impact. He led Arizona with 60 yards rushing, 68 yards receiving and scored one touchdown.