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Three Thoughts: Panthers down toothless Cardinals in wild-card round

With the Arizona Cardinals' offense neutered by the shortcomings of third-string quarterback Ryan Lindley, the Carolina Panthers only had to avoid beating themselves Saturday afternoon.

They did so. Barely.

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The Panthers committed three turnovers and botched a punt, which resulted in 14 points for the firepower-challenged Cardinals, but they also churned out 400 yards of offense and forced three turnovers themselves in a 27-16 wild-card round win. 

"When you have three-plus turnovers -- never mind the other stats -- you can't expect to win," a relieved Cam Newton said. "We had an unbelievable performance by our defense which helped us push the rock over the winning barrier, but moving forward we have to do a better job protecting the football."

The first two Arizona turnovers transformed an almost inexplicably close game into a comfortable Carolina victory. The first came mere seconds after a Fozzy Whittaker touchdown reception pushed the Panthers in front, 20-14 in the third quarter. Cardinals return man Ted Ginn Jr. brought the ensuing kickoff out from eight yards deep in the end zone, only to cough up the ball inside his own 10.

Later, after Arizona's defense handed its offense a 1st-and-goal opportunity by forcing a Cam Newton fumble, an overmatched Lindley fired an interception right into Luke Kuechly's arms.

All told, Arizona finished the game with 78 yards of offense, the lowest total in NFL playoff history -- a dubious distinction the Cardinals claimed by losing 19 yards on a meaningless lateral play as time expired. The 1958 Cleveland Browns were the previous record holders, having mustered a mere 86 yards in a 10-0 loss to the Giants.

Three Thoughts on the Panthers' first playoff victory since Jan. 15, 2006.

1. Can Cam Newton be more two-dimensional next week?: What was good enough for Carolina on Saturday likely will not even come close to getting the job done in Seattle or Green Bay next weekend. (The Panthers' divisional-round opponent will be determined by the Detroit-Dallas outcome.)

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Even with Newton still ailing from that car accident a few weeks back, the Panthers managed to use the zone-read effectively at times. Between the misdirection and some stellar blocking up front, running back Jonathan Stewart managed to churn out 123 yards and a touchdown.

Newton added 35 yards rushing himself, including back-to-back third-down scrambles just after halftime to help Carolina flip field position.

The passing game, though, suffered from Newton's inaccuracies. His two touchdown passes came off the screen to Whittaker and a one-yard, play-action toss to Mike Tolbert. En route to an 18-for-32 night, Newton left several significant gains on the field by air-mailing his receivers.

2. No chance for Lindley and Co.: Most of this boils down to A) Lindley being in well over his head for a game of this magnitude; and B) Panthers linebackers Thomas Davis and Luke Kuechly dominating sideline-to-sideline to eliminate any Arizona run or screen game. 

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The deep shots that are a staple of Bruce Arians' offense were nowhere to be found. When the Cardinals did try to push their receivers downfield, Lindley proved either unwilling or unable to test the Panthers' secondary. His second interception was a pass to the end zone from 21 yards out; it was tipped away by Kuechly amid several Carolina defenders.

Arians said last weekend that his team felt "much more comfortable" in Lindley, who threw for 316 yards, two touchdowns and three interceptions in a 20-17 loss to the 49ers. But Lindley was unable to roll over any momentum he may have gained into Saturday's game. Arians also opted to leave rookie Logan Thomas on the bench, despite Lindley's no-show.

"We have to make gameplans to win games and ask players to do things we think they're capable of doing to win games," Arians said after the playoff loss, "so I never buy into injuries losing games."

An admirable approach -- excuses do little for any team. Still, the Cardinals and their fans must be wondering how this season would have unfolded with Carson Palmer or even Drew Stanton under center.

3. Drew Butler and the battle for field position: Butler finished the regular season ranked No. 31 among punters with enough attempts to qualify for the NFL leaderboard, at 42.1 yards per kick. An awful game from him Saturday added to Arizona's misery, killing any chance Arians' team had of winning the field position battle.

Butler averaged 35 yards on nine punts, and that's with a 52-yarder as part of the mix. No question, Butler's struggles were in the mind of Carolina coach Ron Rivera when he punted from Arizona's 37 down by one midway through the third quarter. A quick three-and-out preceded a 31-yard punt from Butler, which handed Carolina the ball inside Arizona's 40. Newton and Whittaker hooked up on the very next play for the go-ahead touchdown.

Arizona was already working against the 8-ball because of its issues on offense. The Cardinals did force a turnover on one of Butler's punts, thanks to a boneheaded decision by Carolina return man Brenton Bersin, but all in all Butler hurt his team with his shaky performance.