Cardinals' 7 turnovers lead to loss in NFC title game

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) Carson Palmer couldn't hold onto the football against a relentless defense, causing one of the NFL's best offenses to sputter.

And his defense couldn't come up with the hard-hitting stops needed to salvage any momentum.

The Arizona Cardinals picked a terrible time - on the road in the NFC championship game, no less - to have a mistake-filled performance.

Palmer had six of the Cardinals' seven turnovers while the defense had a couple of key missed tackles that led to big plays in the Carolina Panthers' 49-15 win on Sunday night, sending the Panthers to their second Super Bowl while ending what had been the Cardinals' winningest season with a thud.

''This is as low as you can feel,'' Palmer said in a hushed tone. ''You put so much in and you come in here with such high expectations, and to leave the way we're leaving just hurts.''

Palmer threw four interceptions and was stripped for a pair of fumbles, while All-Pro cornerback Patrick Peterson fumbled a punt return in the first half. And many of those miscues helped Carolina roll to a 24-7 halftime lead with an outcome that was - shockingly - never in doubt.

This wasn't what anyone could have expected from the Cardinals, whose 13 regular-season wins allowed them to dethrone the two-time NFC champion Seattle Seahawks as NFC West champions. And they were in contention for home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs until losing at home in a blowout to the Seahawks in the regular-season finale to finish with the NFC's No. 2 seed behind Carolina.

Still, they entered the playoffs as maybe the most complete team in the league statistically. They had the league's No. 2 scoring offense (30.6 points) and top total offense (408.3 yards), while the defense ranked in the top 10 in both scoring (19.6) and total defense (321.7).

That group never showed up in Charlotte.

Palmer was inconsistent in earning his first career playoff win in last week's overtime thriller against Green Bay in the divisional round. He struggled throughout on Sunday night, constantly shuffling against the oncoming rush and never looking comfortable.

He finished 23 for 40 for 235 yards with one touchdown, throwing a late pick-6 to Luke Kuechly followed by another interception as the game turned into a rout.

''I was definitely forcing it,'' Palmer said. ''And like I said, I put us in that hole.''

Meanwhile, Arizona's defense allowed several big plays. It started early when cornerback Justin Bethel missed a chance to bring down Ted Ginn Jr. near the line of scrimmage, and Ginn weaved his way across the field for a 22-yard touchdown for Carolina's first score.

There was an even bigger miss late in that opening quarter, when safety Rashad Johnson had a chance to tackle receiver Philly Brown after a big catch near midfield. But Johnson couldn't drag him down, spring Brown free for an 86-yard touchdown that pushed Carolina's lead to 17-0.

''With the misdirection they do, they do a great job of bringing guys in motion, running the ball back from where the motion came,'' Johnson said. ''Just a lot of unorthodox things, and we just weren't very sound in our defense today.''

Turns out, it was just the start of a horrific night, with Arizona giving up more points and yards (476) than it had all season.

And for the second straight year, the Cardinals' season ended in a double-digit loss at Carolina.

''If you're not putting a ring on your finger, if that confetti isn't falling on your head, it's a bad year,'' Cardinals coach Bruce Arians said.

''You have to look back and see a lot of positive things. To win 14 games, to win a playoff game, to be here in the championship game, those are all positive things.

''But we're not about that. We're about winning a championship.''

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Follow Aaron Beard on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/aaronbeardap and the AP's NFL site at http://pro32.ap.org

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