GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Carson Palmer nearly blew it. This, of course, was before he made the play of the game Saturday night. It was before he could exhale, point his fingers to the sky and walk off the field in victory.
Palmer looked nothing like his MVP-caliber self for much of the Arizona Cardinals' 26-20 victory over the Green Bay Packers. He scattered errant passes all over University of Phoenix Stadium. He threw two interceptions and had at least three passes dropped. One of his three touchdown passes came after a Packers defender tipped the ball into the end zone.
"But all along we trusted him," Cardinals defensive end Calais Campbell said. "We've been the NFL's No. 1 offense this year, and Carson Palmer was the leader of that. He's made it happen time and time again. That's always our belief: that he is going to get it done for us."
Palmer just completed the best regular season of his career and put himself in position for the first NFL playoff run of his life. That's right: He entered Saturday night's game without a single playoff victory in 13 NFL seasons, the victim of injuries and unfortunate timing with three of the least successful franchises of this generation: the Cincinnati Bengals, Oakland Raiders and Cardinals.
It wouldn't have been the first time a veteran player choked in the playoffs. Here was Carson Palmer, the NFL's top downfield thrower during the regular season, with just 74 passing yards on 14 attempts at halftime. Palmer played as if his only goal was to avoid mistakes, and he hardly resembled the swashbuckling passer who finished the season with a league-high average of 8.7 yards per attempt.
"Just being patient," was the way Palmer described it afterward, noting the Packers were aligning themselves to discourage deep throws.
"We didn't feel like they were going to come in here and score 35 points on us," Palmer added. "We have a lot of faith in our defense. And they weren't going to let us score 35 points. They were sitting back in a ton of different two-high looks."
That, however, is not the way the Cardinals have played football under Arians the past three years. The coach who throws when trying to run time off the clock and orders blitzes on Hail Mary plays -- Arians did both Saturday night -- wasn't about to let his quarterback dink and dunk in a playoff game.
"Carson wanted to start out this game throwing short," Arians said. "At halftime I said, 'Look, they are giving us chunks. We've got too many chunk plays in here … not to use them. And then he was settled down by then and ready to use them."
That approach still left Palmer making some uncharacteristically inaccurate throws as the third quarter began, capped by an interception on a deep pass he forced to receiver Michael Floyd. But it returned him to the mindset that got the Cardinals to the playoffs in the first place.
Palmer threw for 273 yards after halftime while enjoying some luck along the way. The way his night had been going, there was every reason to believe a forced pass to receiver Larry Fitzgerald in the fourth quarter -- tipped by Packers cornerback Damarious Randall -- would wind up in the hands of a Packers defender. Instead, it settled into Floyd's hands for the go-ahead touchdown.
"[Palmer] just had that confident look," safety Rashad Johnson said. "If you have played any sports or done any type of competitive activity, you see a guy that is confident. He can say, 'I got you,' and you know it."
Never was that more apparent than on the first play of overtime, when Palmer stepped up and away from Packers linebacker Clay Matthews and spun away from linebacker Mike Neal. Scanning downfield, he spied Fitzgerald wide open on the other side of the field.
Fitzgerald turned the toss into a 75-yard pass that to set up the winning touchdown. But without Palmer's spin move, the play would have ended in a loss for 8 yards. Who would have thought Carson Palmer could coax his 36-year-old body to do that?
Afterward, Palmer spoke softly in a room adjacent to the Cardinals locker room. He laughed when he knocked over a Gatorade bottle on the podium, a reminder of his less-than-perfect night. He admitted, in a brief moment of introspection, that it "feels better than I thought it would" to win a playoff game.
(I asked: How good did you think it would feel? Palmer said: "Not as good." So much for sentiment.)
Then he caught himself. He made clear he wasn't satisfied simply by ending his personal playoff drought.
"It's easy to dwell on [bad plays]," Palmer said. "But the experience I have, I've learned from a lot of opportunities and situations. You've got to forget about it and move on. There is no other thought."
That's all he needed Saturday night: a spin and a short memory.