GLENDALE, Ariz. — At various times over the course of last season, the Arizona Cardinals talked loud and long about their intention to make history and become the first team to to play the Super Bowl in their own stadium, a goal they fell considerably short of realizing.
Instead of making that game in their own University of Phoenix Stadium, the Carson Palmer-less Cardinals saw their season die an unsightly death in Charlotte, N.C., when the sub-.500 Carolina Panthers beat them in the first round of the NFC playoffs. And now, with 11 weeks of the NFL’s 2015 regular season almost in the books, and after Arizona beat the AFC North-leading Bengals 34–31, it’s starting to look like the 8-2 Cardinals and 10-0 Panthers are on a collision course for a rematch in this year’s postseason.
But instead of just talking about what they’d do on the big stage, this season’s Arizona club is showing us. These Cardinals are starting to revel in the glamor-game setting, and they’re getting used to delivering when the pressure is on. As these past two Sunday nights have shown, first with last week’s back-and-forth win in Seattle and now at home against Cincinnati, the bigger the game, the better Arizona is responding.
Against the Bengals in one of the most entertaining games of the season thus far, the Cardinals were resilient and resourceful, and they answered every challenge they were presented with, no matter if it was trailing early or being tied late. The bottom line was Arizona bested the Bengals, needing a final-minute field goal drive to set up Chandler Catanzaro’s game-winner from 32 yards out. The Cardinals are getting comfortable in this type of atmosphere.
“Absolutely,” said Arizona safety Tyrann Mathieu, when I asked him if there was future value to beating quality opponents like the Seahawks and Bengals in this type of pressurized environment. “This is the first time we’ve really been a part of the primetime deal. Our head coach [Bruce Arians], he comes from that, playing in the big games. He just tells us to play confident and not be scared. Because we’re talented enough and we’re coached up. We just try to believe in our coaches as much as possible, but any time you get on this type of stage and play a 60-minute football game, everybody notices that.”
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If the playoffs began today, the Panthers would be the NFC’s top seed at 10-0, with Arizona in the No. 2 spot. And unlike last season, when the Cardinals started 9-1 and then lost steam when Palmer went down with a season-ending ACL injury, Arizona is not getting too far ahead of the story this time around. There is no Super Bowl talk coming out of Glendale. Just a renewed sense of resolve.
“When you have experiences, you learn from them,” Cardinals defensive tackle Calais Campbell said. “We know being 8-2 doesn’t do anything for you. You don’t get no trophy for that. You’ve got to keep playing football and keep moving forward.
“But when you get the experience in these tight games, you get confidence that you can win these tight games. Earlier this season we lost a couple close games, so it feels good to be able to come out and get a couple wins back to back, in really close games, against really good football teams, too. It just builds our confidence, and gets our momentum going. But there’s a long way to go, and a hard way to go.”
Having built a 10-point lead at 31–21 with 6:27 remaining, the Cardinals could have cracked when the Bengals roared back to tie it at 31-31 on a 43-yard Mike Nugent field goal with 1:03 remaining. Instead they reacted like they’ve been there before and knew how this night would end.
“We came off the field after they kicked the field goal and we looked at our offense, and they didn’t seem to care,” Mathieu said. “They still had 50-something seconds, so the defense, we like that, obviously. Carson this year, it’s so personal because of everything he’s been through, so we definitely believe in him.”
On the first three plays of Arizona’s final possession, Palmer calmly and cooly hit passes of 19, 18 and 20 yards, moving the ball from the Cardinals 16 to the Bengals 27. After a costly Cincinnati unsportsmanlike conduct penalty by Bengals nose tackle Domata Peko (he was caught trying to call out the Arizona snap count), Catanzaro was in chip-shot range to bang home the game-winner.
The Cardinals seem to have absorbed the lesson of last season and what it requires to take the next step of growth as a Super Bowl contender. Wins like their latest Sunday Night Football handiwork should serve them well as the games ratchet up in terms of intensity and pressure. Here are three more things we learned from Arizona’s dramatic victory over Cincinnati:
1. The Cardinals' 2015 rookie class has been impressive this season, and Sunday night’s star was fifth-round receiver J.J. Nelson, who swung the game’s momentum when he ran under a 64-yard Palmer touchdown bomb three-plus minutes into the third quarter, tying the game at 14-14. The big play electrified the crowd, energized the Cardinals and demoralized the Bengals.
Brown is listed at 5’10”, 160 pounds, perhaps generously, but he ran a 4.28 time in his 40-yard dash at the NFL combine, and he can flat fly. The Cardinals love them some small, fast receivers, and took 5’11”, 179-pounder John Brown in last year’s third round. When Michael Floyd was ruled inactive due to a hamstring injury suffered last week against the Seahawks, Arizona looked to Nelson, who was inactive last week and had yet to score a touchdown this season.
“I like speed,” Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians said. “I like speed that comes in any package. It’s nice when it’s 6-foot-4 and 220 pounds. If it’s a buck fifty-eight and it’s still fast, you don’t have to be big to catch it over your shoulder. I have always liked fast little guys that are quick and can take the top off the coverage. Those little guys are exciting.”
Nelson had a game-high 142 yards receiving on four catches and was one of four Cardinals receivers to catch a touchdown pass from Palmer, and that total didn’t even include a score by future Hall of Fame receiver Larry Fitzgerald. That’s how deep these Cardinals go in play-makers.
“I remember covering those guys in training camp (Nelson and Brown), and I remember playing 15 yards off because they’ve got that type of speed,” Mathieu said. “Any time you have two, three receivers that run a 4.2, it definitely stresses the defense out. That speed is so terrifying. That speed kills.”
Nelson, who played collegiate at Alabama-Birmingham, caught passes of 23, 36 and 18 yards besides his game-changing 64-yard touchdown, and it was by far his biggest game of the season. He’s been inactive in half of the Arizona’s 10 games, and a shoulder injury cost him four of those games on the sideline.
“I hope I have many more games like that, it was great,” Nelson said. “That ball [on the touchdown] was hanging up there forever. I was praying and hoping it’d come down. Carson threw a great ball and I just wanted to make a great play and run under it.”
2. High-profile matchups like this one inevitably get labeled potential Super Bowl previews and then rarely live up to that hype or the billing. But this game did. The Bengals and Cardinals are heavyweight contenders and they slugged it out all night, throwing everything they had at one another.
That's why it’s difficult to revive the Bengals-can’t-win-in-prime-time narrative after this one. Both teams acquitted themselves well, and Cincinnati quarterback Andy Dalton was a strong 22 of 39 for 315 yards, with two touchdowns, no interceptions and a sharp 99.8 passer rating. No big-game meltdown there.
“We had chances on that [final field-goal] drive, even on the last play I threw to A.J. [Green],” Dalton said. “I left it a little short and that would have won the game for us. It’s tough. We left too much time. They did a good job of completing some big passes down the field and got it into field goal range. It’s tough for it to end this way.”
Tough, but not a deflating defeat for Cincinnati. The Bengals went toe-to-toe with one of the two best teams in the NFC, and had controlled the game through most of the first half. Cincinnati was missing three secondary members by game’s end due to injury, but still, a play here or there, and the Bengals could have won this game. And scoring 17 of its 31 points in the fourth quarter, overcoming a 10-point lead, is a very good sign for Cincinnati and its perseverance level. This was not Cincinnati giving away a game to an inferior opponent, like it did last Monday night at home in its first loss of the season, falling to Houston 10–6.
3. Palmer’s two first-half interceptions were not characteristic of him, but he is so clearly a driven player this season, thanks to last year’s knee injury, and he is determined to take full advantage of the best team he has ever been on. And no matter what he has said about playing the Bengals, the team that drafted him first overall in 2003, he wanted this game immensely.
“He was out of sync in the first half and tried to force one down the middle that wasn’t even there,” Arians said of an interception that was intended for Nelson. “Same thing [on the one] to Larry [Fitzgerald]. I think he wanted to get after these guys a little too much early, and then he settled down and got into rhythm.”
Palmer was just 7 of 12 for 81 yards, with one touchdown, two interceptions and a 67.0 passer rating in the first half. But he still finished 20 of 31 for 317 yards, with four touchdowns, those two picks, and a 111.2 rating overall. He hit seven Cardinals receivers with passes, with four of them scoring touchdowns (Nelson and Brown caught one each, as did tight end Darren Fells and running back David Johnson).
“[Arians] just looked me in the eye and said, ‘You got to play. You got to step up your play,’” Palmer said, of his coach’s halftime message. “Other than that, nothing else.”
Little else needed to be said. Palmer was facing the Bengals, and their relationship didn’t end well in 2011. He’s not obsessed with revenge against Cincinnati, but he and everyone in Arizona’s locker room understood what this game meant.
“No question. This is game we all wanted to perform well for Carson,” Fitzgerald said. “He never talks about anything like that, but you know it has significance to him. He played his tail off for us, took some big hits in the first half, kept getting up and fighting for us. And then came out and delivered when it was time to.”
When Palmer delivers, the Cardinals deliver. And they’ve done it now two weeks in a row in primetime, big-stage settings. This Arizona team has stepped it up a notch this season, and there are even bigger games in store.
“They’re two big wins,” Palmer said. “We’re just past the halfway point. There’s a lot of football left and a lot of division games left. We still got a long way to go and Bruce will tell us we haven’t done anything yet. I know that’s coming. He’s keeping us grounded, which is exactly what a great head coach does. But I think we showed we’re a good team.”
The Cardinals did indeed show it, which is always a more powerful statement to make than just saying it.