Coming into Sunday’s game, the Arizona Cardinals defense had not allowed a touchdown in 11 quarters.
Then Carolina running back Jonathan Stewart scored two in the first half of a 30-20 victory that, for the moment, salvaged the Panthers’ playoff hopes.
After struggling to create turnovers all season, the Panthers got one early from Carson Palmer, whose fumble on a sack by Star Lotulelei was scooped up by Thomas Davis and returned 46 yards for his first career touchdown in 12 NFL seasons.
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Stewart’s 2-yard touchdown run, which completed a nine-play, 75-yard drive, made it 14-0.
His 1-yard run with 11 minutes, 5 seconds to play in the second quarter made it 21-0.
The Panthers were never seriously threatened from there. Arizona cut the Carolina lead to 30-20 with 5:01 to play, but a two-point conversion pass attempt was batted away.
The Panthers held on behind a defense that got to Palmer eight times – a season high for the defense and the most Palmer has ever been sacked in a game.
The increased pressure came from more than just the defensive line.
“It was by design,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said. “The bye ... they came back rejuvenated.”
The Panthers improved to 2-5, and dropped the Cardinals to 3-4-1. No team that started 1-6 has rallied to make the playoffs.
“It’s huge because it’s one of those things you can build off of,” Rivera said. “Today we played to our abilities.
“We’ve done some good things, but you are what your record says. We’ve got to keep rolling.”
Three who mattered
Star Lotulelei: He had three sacks in the first half, after having seven in his four-year career coming in.
Jonathan Stewart: Beyond the two touchdown runs, Stewart had 95 yards on 25 carries and led a Panthers ground game that ran for more than 100 yards for the second consecutive game – and for the 32nd time in the past 33 games. His fumble with 3:19 to play was erased by defensive end Kony Ealy’s tip and interception on the next play.
Leonard Johnson: In his first game back from an Achilles tear, Johnson had a sack, a second that was called back by a penalty and he broke up the two-point conversion pass that kept Carolina’s lead at 10.
▪ Panthers pressure on the first two Cardinals passing plays – blitzes by Davis and then Luke Kuechly – didn’t get to Palmer, who completed both passes. Kuechly did get to Palmer a series later for a sack that forced a punt, and the early pressure signaled the Panthers’ more-aggressive strategy for Sunday.
▪ After center Ryan Kalil came off the field in the first half to have his right shoulder checked, he engaged in a long conversation with a trainer and presumably talked himself back on the field. He didn’t last long, exiting straight to the locker room later in the half. He didn’t return and was replaced by Gino Gradkowski.
▪ A shot to quarterback Cam Newton’s knees during the third quarter by defensive end Calais Campbell resulted in a nervous moment for Newton, a mea culpa from Campbell and some jawing from both teams. “I’m speechless. Next question,” Newton said of not getting a call on that play.
▪ The Cardinals faced a second-and-44 early in the fourth quarter. There aren’t many plays in the playbook for that. According to ESPN, the Cardinals were the first team since 2001 to face second down and at least 44 yards.
▪ The Panthers were without rookie cornerback James Bradberry, who had been listed as questionable with turf toe. Rookie defensive tackle Vernon Butler, who tweaked a high ankle sprain after returning to practice last week, was also out, as was left tackle Michael Oher (concussion).
▪ The Panthers and Newton took only one deep shot all day, an interception that was overturned on replay. Newton finished 14 of 27 for 212 yards. He didn’t have a touchdown or an interception, and was sacked once.
▪ Arizona cut Carolina’s lead to 24-7 when the Cardinals drove 75 yards in nine plays for a touchdown, on a 5-yard pass from Palmer to J.J. Nelson, with 20 seconds to play in the first half. Between the NFC Championship game in January and Sunday, the Panthers outscored the Cardinals 48-7 in the first half.
▪ Palmer finished 35 of 46 for 363 yards and three touchdowns. He was intercepted once.
▪ Panthers tight end Greg Olsen had one catch on three targets, for 11 yards. The Cardinals are a tough matchup for tight ends, even those on pace for NFL records.
▪ Shaq Thompson walked off with a left knee injury during the second quarter and did not return.
▪ Graham Gano had field goals of 43, 52 and 21 yards.
They said it
“We had a good week, a lot of good things that happened. ... It all goes hand in hand.” – Rivera, on the combination of the pass rush and the secondary.
“They’ve got a tremendous running attack. (Stopping that) was something that we needed to do.” – Rivera, on slowing the Cardinals’ run game.
“I really like what we were getting from those guys, and it’s a reflection of the growth and development of our secondary as well.” – Rivera, on the defensive line.
“It was a great win. We’ve just got to keep putting them together.” – Newton
“Major, major kudos to our defensive line, and to our secondary.” – Newton