The NFL’s final four is white with chalk, as the top seeds are 60 minutes from the Super Bowl.
In the NFC, the only two Heisman-winning quarterbacks ever to face each other in the NFL playoffs, Cam Newton and Carson Palmer, are on the opposite ends of the career arc.
Newton has a sprawling future before him. At 26, he’s beaming from the top of the football world, captaining a 15-1 franchise to the edge of history. On top of his umpteenth yogurt commercial, he should win NFL MVP, and if his Carolina Panthers win two more games, he could enter the archives among the greatest single seasons ever.
Palmer has more modest goals. He just won his first playoff game, is four quarters from Super Bowl 50 and, at his age and wage, is just happy to be here.
When Palmer, 36, suffered a serious injury in the playoffs exactly 10 years ago, he had to wonder if he would ever be in this position again. The 2005 Bengals were serious Super Bowl contenders. Then Kimo von Oelhoffen rolled his knee, and the club never recovered.
A few years later, Palmer and the Bengals were rolled by the New York Jets, and suddenly he was expendable. The team drafted Andy Dalton, and Palmer was jettisoned to the Oakland Raiders, a black hole for QBs and playoff dreams. Twice left for dead, Palmer proved to have one more life.
Like Kurt Warner before him, Palmer was given a stay of NFL execution in Arizona. And as with Warner, Palmer is enjoying a perfect confluence of timing and talent. Just as Ken Wisenhunt was the perfect coach at the perfect time for Warner, Palmer couldn’t ask for a more thorough or empathetic mind than that of Bruce Arians. Few coaches have survived the coaching recycle bin the way the Cardinals’ head man has, making the QB and HC kindred gridiron spirits.
Palmer’s road to the NFC title game was a perfect microcosm of his career. Last Saturday, against the Green Bay Packers, he threw two interceptions, including a brutal pass in the red zone late in the game that spawned a tirade from Cris Collinsworth. Then he had to endure an impossible Hail Mary pass by Aaron Rodgers as time expired. Then you had the surreal coin flip, where the coin forgot to turn over in the air.
The Cardinals won the coin flip redux, and, with the epic help of Larry Fitzgerald, Arizona punched a ticket to Carolina.
This season has been a godsend for the Cardinals QB. After a 9-1 start last season, Palmer was injured, yet again, sucking the air out of the Good Ship Arizona, who had the defense and offensive skill players to take the team where they are right now.
Between Palmer’s age and tender limbs, and the cutthroat competition in the NFL, you can’t bank on yet another comeback. Months of rehab, combined with the natural decay that applies to everyone but Tom Brady, could easily have rendered last year a lost year for Palmer.
But in 2015, Palmer posted club records for passing yards and touchdowns. They drafted speedster John Brown to go with Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd. When RB Chris Johnson went down, they unearthed gold in David Johnson. Only the loss of Tyrann Mathieu kept the Cards from entering the playoffs essentially intact.
Carolina will be ready to burst the dream cloud and dreamy season the Cardinals have been riding. There’s no blueprint for Cam Newton, a behemoth of a QB with a howitzer for an arm and legs like a leopard. He may not have fully matured — many could do without the spastic end zone dances — but he’s distilled his biblical skill set into one formidable weapon. Unlike the past, when a bad game or bad season would have sent Newton pouting and packing, he seems to be a man in full this year.
There’s no pouting with Carson Palmer. There’s no time. Folks may question his playoff bona fides, but he responded to adversity last week by throwing the ball until he hit the right man. In the zero-sum crucible of the NFL playoffs, the final score is the only stat that matters. To that end, Palmer is now a winner.
While he’s happy to be here, he’s not just happy to be here. Few players in NFL history have endured more to get where they are than Carson Palmer. You don’t have to be an Arizona fan to applaud the man.
Jason writes a weekly column for CBS Local Sports. He is a native New Yorker, sans the elitist sensibilities, and believes there’s a world west of the Hudson River. A Yankees devotee and Steelers groupie, he has been scouring the forest of fertile NYC sports sections since the 1970s. He has written over 500 columns for WFAN/CBS NY, and also worked as a freelance writer for Sports Illustrated and Newsday subsidiary amNew York. He made his bones as a boxing writer, occasionally covering fights in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, but mostly inside Madison Square Garden. Follow him on Twitter @JasonKeidel.