The Arizona Cardinals never expected novice quarterback Ryan Lindley to win this playoff game.
They just hoped he’d do less to lose it in his first start for the Cardinals.
Injuries forced him into the unlikely position of starting Saturday against the Carolina Panthers. For a while he avoided mistakes and sacks and the Cardinals actually led at halftime.
Then inexperience kicked in. Two interceptions and several late sacks were key factors in the Panthers’ 27-16 comeback victory at Bank of America Stadium.
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“I thought he did great up until that first interception,” said Cardinals coach Bruce Arians. “We didn’t put ourselves in manageable third downs.”
Basically the Cardinals were a team without an offense. They finished this game with a net 78 total yards. They were far from the group that contended for the NFC West title before quarterback Carson Palmer was lost for the season.
But the Panthers kept the Cardinals in the game by gifting them short fields. First punt returner Brenton Bersin failed to step out of the way of a bouncing ball, allowing the Cardinals to recover possession 30 yards from the end zone.
Then Panthers quarterback Cam Newton’s pass was picked off by Cardinals cornerback Antonio Cromartie and returned to the Carolina 17.
Bersin’s muffed punt set up Lindley’s one-yard touchdown pass to tight end Darren Fells. Newton’s interception eventually led to a one-yard touchdown run by Marion Grice. So while gaining just 65 yards in the first half, the Cardinals actually led 14-13 at halftime.
Then everything blew up. Lindley was twice intercepted deep in Panthers territory in the second half, one a ball that went straight to Carolina linebacker Luke Kuechly, almost as if it was aimed at him.
“Luke is an outstanding player,” Arians said, “and a better player when you throw the ball right to him.”
Lindley’s final statistics: 16 completions on 28 attempts for 82 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions. And he was sacked four times (twice in a row by Charles Johnson) for 31 yards in losses.
“It didn’t look great, but our defense was putting us in good positions. Obviously we were up at halftime. The momentum swung a little bit and we pressed to make some plays,” Lindley said.
“That’s on me. Those two turnovers, at that point in the game, we’d gotten a lot of momentum there in the red zone.”
Lindley said his biggest mistake was failing to recognize a bad play and avoid making it worse:
“You’ve got to eat a play, to live to fight another day. It’s first down and you can’t force stuff like that.”
Lindley said he was a beat late releasing the pass that ended up in Kuechly’s grasp.
“There was a guy down on the ground and I had to reset the play. Kuechly jumped in front of it. We’d seen that look, we knew it was coming. You’ve just got to eat it – to pull it down or throw it out of the end zone.”
Lindley felt culpable. He said his being thrust into a role beyond his experience wasn’t an excuse for the way he played.
“Regardless of the circumstances, of where I was six or eight weeks ago, you’re called upon to win football games,” Lindley concluded. “We didn’t do that the last three weeks. I’m definitely going to learn from the situation It’s a tough one but it’s going to make me a better player.”