Newton, defense lead Panthers past Cardinals 27-16

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Arizona Cardinals' Ryan Lindley (14) is sacked by Carolina Panthers' Charles Johnson (95) in the second half of an NFL wild card playoff football game in Charlotte, N.C., Saturday, Jan. 3, 2015. The Panthers won 27-16. By Mike Gertzman Arizona Cardinals' Ryan Lindley (14) is sacked by Carolina Panthers' Charles Johnson (95) in the second half of an NFL wild card playoff football game in Charlotte, N.C., Saturday, Jan. 3, 2015. The Panthers won 27-16. By Mike Gertzman

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) -- Luke Kuechly knows Carolina's defense didn't have much bite earlier in the season.

He said that made Saturday all the more special.

The Panthers held Arizona to 78 yards and forced three turnovers in a 27-16 win, the franchise's first postseason victory in nine years. It's the fewest yards ever allowed in an NFL postseason game.

"We know who we are - menacing, stifling and we are going to get after you," cornerback Josh Norman said. "We know when there is blood in the water and when there is, our sharks are going to eat."

The Panthers (8-8-1) held Arizona to 12 yards in the second half, intercepted Ryan Lindley twice and sacked him four times in a dominating performance.

Carolina's defense has undergone a remarkable turnaround this season, going from 27th in the league in Week 7 to 10th entering the playoffs.

And the Panthers only seem to be getting better by the week.

"We had a lot of new guys early on who had to get accustomed to each other," said Kuechly, the All-Pro middle linebacker who had a game-high 10 tackles and a key interception. "Now we're all together and communicating - and that's huge."

The New York Giants held the previous NFL record for fewest yards in a postseason game, limiting Cleveland to 86 yards on Dec. 21, 1958.

Cam Newton overcame two turnovers and threw for 198 yards and two touchdowns and Jonathan Stewart ran for 123 yards and a score on a rain-soaked afternoon.

The Panthers had 386 yards.

Newton was quick to deflect attention to his defensive teammates after his first career playoff win, calling their performance "lights out."

"When those guys play like that, it makes it easier on us on our part," Newton said. "Those guys did everything, turnovers, they stopped them. That is championship football right there and we've got to do our part offensively to put points up on the board."

The Panthers will play at top-seeded Seattle next weekend if Dallas beats Detroit on Sunday. If the Lions win, the Panthers play at Green Bay.

It appeared the Panthers wouldn't get the yardage record, but Arizona began lateraling the ball around the field on the final play and lost 19 yards.

It was a fitting end to the Cardinals' offensive ineptitude.

Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis, the only player remaining from the last Carolina team that won a playoff game, called it the most dominating defensive performance he's ever been around.

"Our coaches did a great job and when they lined up in their formations we knew exactly what to expect," Davis said. "We just ran to the ball and made plays."

After a 9-1 start, Arizona's once promising season was undone by a rash of injuries, including to quarterbacks Carson Palmer and Drew Stanton.

Lindley simply wasn't up to the task of leading a playoff team.

Trailing 27-14, Arizona recovered a Newton fumble and returned to the Carolina 8. But with a chance to get his team back on the game, Lindley fired over the middle but was intercepted by Kuechly, essentially sealing the Carolina win with 11:48 left in the game.

Arizona coach Bruce Arians refused to pin the blame on his young quarterback.

"I thought he did great up until the first interception," Arians said. "He managed the game as well as he could. We didn't do a good job of putting ourselves in manageable third downs. But we got the big break and he tried to force one in that should have never been thrown."

The Cardinals finished the season 11-6, but lost five of their final seven games.

"As a team, we always fought," defensive tackle Frostee Rucker said. "It was always the next man up. At some point, we just didn't have anything left. Everyone should hold their heads high. Every person gave it their all, this whole season, win or loss."

Trailing by one at halftime the Panthers scored two touchdowns in a span of 1 minute, 32 seconds late in the third quarter to take control.

Rookie running back Fozzy Whittaker caught a pass in the flat from Newton, reversed fields and got a key block from Kelvin Benjamin to spring him for a 39-yard touchdown.

On the ensuing kickoff, Melvin White stripped returner Ted Ginn Jr., a former Panther, at the Arizona 3 and Kevin Reddick recovered for Carolina. A pass interference penalty on Tony Jefferson on third down gave Carolina a new set of downs, and Newton took advantage. He found wide-open fullback Mike Tolbert in the left flat for a 1-yard touchdown and a 27-14 lead.

Carolina outgained Arizona 208-65 in the first half, but entered the locker room trailing 14-13 after two costly turnovers led to two Cardinals touchdowns.

NOTES: Panthers rookie wide receiver Philly Brown left with a shoulder injury and did not return. ... Charles Johnson had two sacks for the Panthers. ... Arizona had 27 yards rushing on 15 carries.

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Cardinals won't blame injuries for late-season collapse

By JENNA FRYER, AP Sports Writer

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) -- Larry Fitzgerald rattled off a list of Arizona teammates who didn't play in Saturday's season-ending loss to the Carolina Panthers.

Carson Palmer. Darnell Dockett. Andre Ellington. Daryl Washington.

Injuries and other issues decimated the Cardinals, who at 9-1 in November had the best record in the NFL but closed a once-promising season with a 27-16 loss at Carolina on Saturday.

Arizona was eliminated from the playoffs with a thud: third-string quarterback Ryan Lindley managed to lead the Cardinals to just 78 yards - an NFL record for fewest yards in a postseason game.

"We were decimated by injuries this year," Fitzgerald said. "But we never made that an excuse. Now looking back ... if you see all the guys we lost, key components of our team. But coach never allowed us to feel bad about ourselves."

If there was disappointment over Arizona's unraveling, coach Bruce Arians tried to deflect attention to how much the Cardinals overcame.

Quarterback Palmer tore his ACL, then backup Drew Stanton suffered a knee sprain. Dockett blew out his knee in training camp, Washington was suspended by the NFL for the year.

The list goes on and on and only got worse as they closed in on the playoffs. The Cardinals lost five of their final seven games.

"I don't know if I've ever been prouder of guys that go out and fight every week," Arians said.

When asked if the loss of so many players doomed Arizona's opportunity to make a deep run into the playoffs, Arians bristled.

"No missed opportunity whatsoever, these guys overcame," he said. "This was a great season."

It ended against a Carolina team that used a stifling defense to help Cam Newton claim his first playoff victory.

The fourth-year quarterback threw for 198 yards and two touchdowns, and Carolina's defense set an NFL record for fewest yards allowed in a postseason game. It was Carolina's first playoff win in nine years and Newton's first playoff victory since entering the league as the No. 1 overall pick in the 2011 draft.

The Panthers were rough on third-string quarterback Lindley, who was intercepted twice and sacked four times.

"You are called upon to win football games and we didn't do that," Lindley said.

The New York Giants held the previous NFL record for fewest yards in a postseason game, holding Cleveland to 86 yards on Dec. 21, 1958. It appeared the Panthers wouldn't get the record, but Arizona began lateraling the ball around the field on the final play and lost 19 yards.

It was a fitting end to Arizona's struggles. The Cardinals managed 12 yards in the second half and had eight first downs for the game.

"Young guys need to take away, no matter what you did the first couple months of the season, you've got to come to the stage week in and week out," said linebacker Larry Foote, who doesn't know if he'll be back next season.

"I've got to give it some thought. There's two sides: the team's got to want me back, and I've got to want to play."

The future is also murky for Fitzgerald, who has a large salary cap number in 2015 that the Cardinals will likely need to trim to keep the receiver. He declined to discuss his future.

"The taste of defeat is all I can think about right now," he said. "I love Arizona, I love the Cardinals, I love the city. It's been a great place to play and I couldn't be more appreciative of the opportunity to fulfill my dream of competing in the NFL."

Trailing by one at halftime, the Panthers scored two touchdowns in a span of 1 minute, 32 seconds late in the third quarter to take control.

Rookie running back Fozzy Whittaker caught a pass in the flat from Newton, reversed fields and got a key block from Kelvin Benjamin to spring him for a 39-yard touchdown.

On the ensuing kickoff, Melvin White stripped returner Ted Ginn Jr., a former Panther, at the Arizona 3 and Kevin Reddick recovered for Carolina. A pass interference penalty on Tony Jefferson on third down gave Carolina a new set of downs, and Newton took advantage. He found wide-open fullback Mike Tolbert in the left flat for a 1-yard touchdown and a 27-14 lead.

The Cardinals (11-6) had one last chance to get in the game when Newton was hit from behind and Rashad Johnson recovered the ball and returned it to the Carolina 8. But All-Pro Luke Kuechly ruined any chance of an Arizona comeback when he stepped in front Larry Fitzgerald and intercepted Lindley's pass at the 5.

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Panthers beat Cards for 1st playoff win in 9 years

By BARRY WILNER, AP Pro Football Writer

The Carolina Panthers were the second division winner with a losing record in NFL history. They're also the second such team to win a postseason game.

Emulating the 2010 Seattle Seahawks, Carolina (8-8-1) got its first playoff victory in nine years by holding Arizona to 78 yards in a 27-16 win. That was the lowest yield in a postseason game.

Fourth-year quarterback Cam Newton threw for 198 yards and two touchdowns for his first playoff victory, and Jonathan Stewart ran for 123 yards and a touchdown on a rain-soaked afternoon.

Carolina won its final four regular-season games to take the NFC South. It now heads to either Seattle or Green Bay, depending on the outcome of the Detroit-Dallas game on Sunday.

After a 9-1 start, Arizona's once promising season was undone by a rash of injuries, including to quarterbacks Carson Palmer and Drew Stanton. Third-stringer Ryan Lindley went 16 for 28 for 82 yards with two interceptions and one TD pass.

Arizona (11-6) stated a series of laterals on the final play and lost 19 yards, making for the record.

Later Saturday, Pittsburgh (11-5) hosted Baltimore (10-6).

On Sunday, Cincinnati is at Indianapolis.

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Detroit (11-5) at Dallas (12-4)

It might be simplifying this matchup too much, but if the NFC East champion Cowboys can run on the stingy wild-card Lions' defense, it could make all the difference.

DeMarco Murray easily led the NFL in rushing with 1,845 yards, nearly 500 more than runner-up Le'Veon Bell. He was the key to Dallas' dominant, well-balanced attack.

But Detroit had the best rushing D in the league, as well as the No. 2 overall unit.

"You can't worry about things like that," Murray said. "You've just got to play ball and try to execute what you do offensively."

The Lions will have defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh in the lineup. He was originally suspended for this game for stepping on the foot of Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers last week, but a hearings officer upheld his appeal and handed him a $70,000 fine instead.

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Cincinnati (10-5-1) at Indianapolis (11-5)

The Bengals are trying to erase nearly a quarter-century of ugly postseason memories. When they have gotten there (six times) since their last playoff victory after the 1990 season, they have gone home with an opening defeat.

Marvin Lewis has taken the Bengals to the playoffs in 2005, `09, and the last four seasons, with that recent streak with Andy Dalton at quarterback. Lewis can tie Marty Schottenheimer, Jim Mora and Steve Owen for most consecutive playoff losses (six) among coaches in NFL history. Lewis also can tie Mora for most consecutive playoff losses to start a career, and tie Owen for most consecutive playoff losses with one team. Cincinnati also can become the first team in league history to lose opening-round playoff games in four straight seasons.

Indy would gladly oblige, and routed Cincinnati 27-0 during the season.

"When you're playing the game, you're just telling yourself, `I'm not ready to go home. I'm not ready to pack my locker. I'm not ready to move into an offseason just yet,'" longtime star receiver Reggie Wayne said. "So you go out there and you give it everything you've got. You go out there and you want to make sure you leave no stones unturned."

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