The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

First and 10: Carson Palmer’s injury hinders Cardinals, changes complexion of NFC playoff race – NFL Week 10

Did Arizona’s Super Bowl dreams vanish after Carson Palmer’s injury Sunday? (Rick Scuteri/AP Photo)


The Arizona Cardinals showed their remarkable grit and resilience again Sunday. They rallied to beat the St. Louis Rams, 31-14, with a trio of fourth-quarter touchdowns, two of which were scored by their defense. They never flinched after watching quarterback Carson Palmer crumple to the turf with an injury and then be taken to the locker room on a cart. They are 8-1 for the first time since 1948, when they were the Chicago Cardinals.

But on the same day that there was so much to celebrate about the Cardinals and their NFL coach of the year front-runner, Bruce Arians, there also was plenty of room to wonder whether their misfortune has changed the complexion of the NFC playoff race. According to a person familiar with the situation, the Cardinals feared that Palmer suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee Sunday.

Tests must be done to verify the severity of the injury. If a torn ACL is confirmed, Palmer’s season would be over and the Cardinals would be left with backup Drew Stanton as their starter. The Cardinals won games earlier this season with Stanton filling in while Palmer dealt with an ailing right shoulder related to a nerve issue. But winning games down the stretch and potentially into the postseason with Stanton as the starter could be another matter entirely.

Arians did not reveal details about Palmer’s injury during his postgame news conference, saying only that Palmer would undergo testing and the Cardinals hoped to know more within a couple days.

The injury came only two days after the Cardinals announced Friday that Palmer, who turns 35 in December, had signed a three-year contract extension with the team. The deal runs through the 2017 season and, according to a person familiar with its terms, is worth about $50 million, including approximately $20.5 million in guaranteed money. The guaranteed money in the contract ends after the 2015 season, that person said, meaning that the Cardinals guarded themselves against an injury or a drop-off in Palmer’s play by having no guaranteed money in the deal in the 2016 or ‘17 seasons.

The Cardinals had no way of knowing when the deal was completed that such contractual protections would come into play so quickly. Palmer fell to the ground Sunday after taking a relatively light hit for a sack. Palmer remained on the ground and was helped to the sideline, where he stumbled. Members of the team’s medical staff examined Palmer’s knee on the sideline, and then he was taken to the locker room.

Palmer also tore his left ACL during a January 2006 playoff loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers while with the Cincinnati Bengals.

Stanton started three games earlier this season when Palmer was sidelined. The Cardinals beat the New York Giants and San Francisco 49ers but lost to the Denver Broncos with Stanton starting. Stanton suffered a concussion during the defeat to the Broncos and rookie quarterback Logan Thomas finished that game. Palmer returned a week later to beat the Washington Redskins.

Stanton threw a touchdown pass Sunday to rookie wide receiver John Brown to give the Cardinals the lead over the Rams, and Arizona’s defense added touchdowns on returns of an interception by Patrick Peterson and of a fumble recovery by fellow cornerback Antonio Cromartie.

The Cardinals have the NFL’s best record nine games into a season for the first time since 1966. They are 8-1 for the third time in franchise history; it also happened in 1925.

They are two games ahead of the second-place Seattle Seahawks and three games in front of the third-place 49ers in the NFC West. They are a game ahead of the Detroit Lions in the race for the top seed in the NFC playoffs. They still play the Lions, the Seahawks twice, the 49ers and the Kansas City Chiefs.

It has been a storybook season so far for Arizona. But having it stay that way just became that much more challenging.


1. Niners Still in Running

Don’t count out the 49ers.

They got a potential season-saving, fourth-down completion Sunday from quarterback Colin Kaepernick to wide receiver Michael Crabtree. They went on to win in overtime in New Orleans, and reinforcements are on the way.

There has been much to dislike so far about the 49ers’ season. There have been persistent reports that Coach Jim Harbaugh has lost the backing of his players and won’t remain with the team beyond this season. The defense has been without some of its biggest stars. A 4-2 start gave way to a lopsided loss at Denver before a bye week, then a narrow post-bye defeat to the Rams eight days ago.

When they trailed the Saints, 24-21, with just more than a minute and a half to play in regulation Sunday and faced a fourth-and-10 predicament at their 22-yard line, it was clear that the 49ers’ season very well might be on the line. But Crabtree got open behind the New Orleans secondary, aided by a misstep by Saints safety Kenny Vaccaro. He moved forward to cover another receiver and left Crabtree unguarded. Kaepernick bought some time by eluding the pass rush and then zipped a pass to Crabtree for a 51-yard gain. Season saved.

That led to a tying field goal by kicker Phil Dawson. The 49ers survived a would-be touchdown catch by Saints tight end Jimmy Graham at the end of regulation that was negated by an offensive pass interference penalty on Graham. They collected an overtime fumble by Saints quarterback Drew Brees and won, 27-24, on another Dawson field goal to improve their record to 5-4.

In each NFL season since 1987, at least one team with a record of .500 or worse through eight games rallied to reach the playoffs. There were two such teams last season — the Philadelphia Eagles, who were 3-5, and the San Diego Chargers, who were 4-4. There were a total of 14 such teams over the previous six seasons.

Could the Saints, who were 4-4 entering Sunday’s game and are now 4-5, and 49ers be added to that list? The Saints are aided by being in the dreadful NFC South. They remained in first place even after Sunday’s defeat. It is looking more and more like they could match the 2010 Seahawks, who became the first team ever to reach the NFL playoffs with a losing record in a non-strike season.

The 49ers have no such terrible-division margin for error. But they know how to win, having reached three NFC title games and a Super Bowl in Harbaugh’s first three seasons at the helm. And there is the prospect that they will improve down the stretch with the return of their missing standout linebackers. Aldon Smith’s nine-game suspension by the NFL is now over. Patrick Willis could return soon from a toe injury. And NaVorro Bowman, who has been sidelined all season because of the knee injury that he suffered at Seattle in last season’s NFC championship game, has been working toward a return.

Those who discount the 49ers’ chances of still being a factor just might be in for a surprise. Since training camp, it has been clear that if they could hold things together without Smith and Bowman so that they would be playing still-meaningful games in December, they would have a chance to be a team that was on an upswing going into the postseason. There has been more turbulence than anticipated, with all the speculation about Harbaugh-centric turmoil.

But the 49ers aren’t going away, at least not yet.

2. More Harbaugh Antics

Harbaugh’s brother John, the coach of the Baltimore Ravens, also had an eventful day.

After the Ravens beat the Tennessee Titans, 21-7, at home Sunday, CBS aired Harbaugh making postgame comments to his team about the Steelers. The Steelers suffered an inexplicable loss Sunday to the New York Jets, a week after getting six touchdown passes by quarterback Ben Roethlisberger in a victory over the Ravens.

“That team beat us last week,” Harbaugh told his players Sunday. “Then they went out and got their [butt] kicked this week.”

The Ravens objected to Harbaugh’s marginally inflammatory comments about their division rival becoming public.

The team released a written statement by spokesman Kevin Byrne that said: “The comments made by John Harbaugh in the locker room following today’s victory over the Titans were meant for Ravens players and coaches only. The CBS-TV crew that was in the locker room was told by Coach Harbaugh that it could not broadcast what he was about to say.

“When Coach Harbaugh finished talking about various things happening around the NFL and in the AFC North, he told the crew that it could now use what he was going to say. Inexplicably, CBS-TV then aired comments Coach Harbaugh specifically said were not to leave the locker room. CBS-TV immediately pulled the video and apologized to the Ravens.”

CBS acknowledged its mistake and said it had apologized to the Ravens.

3. Rodgers, Romo Look Good

Green Bay fans apparently can R-E-L-A-X about Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers’s hamstring.

Few, if any, NFL players are as indispensable to their teams as Rodgers is to the Packers. So, naturally, there was considerable angst when Rodgers grabbed his hamstring during a loss at New Orleans 15 days ago. Rodgers remained in that game but clearly was limited by the injury.

Rodgers, who earlier this season advised followers of the Packers to relax about the team’s struggles, vowed not to miss any playing time. He didn’t. He was back in the lineup Sunday night against the Chicago Bears, and all went more than fine. Rodgers threw for 315 yards and six touchdowns before giving way to backup Matt Flynn as the Packers coasted to a 55-14 triumph. Rodgers’s six first-half touchdown passes tied an NFL record.

Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo likewise calmed some injury-related fears. Romo, who missed one game after he fractured two tiny bones in his back during a loss to the Redskins, returned to the lineup Sunday against the Jacksonville Jaguars in London.

Romo threw for 246 yards and three touchdowns as the Cowboys won relatively easily, 31-17, to end a two-game losing streak and improve their record to 7-3.

The Cowboys dismissed a report by the league-owned NFL Network that 20 players missed curfew Friday night, saying there was a firm curfew in place only on Saturday night.

4. Trestman Joins Hot Seat; Coughlin Too?

One NFL head coach, Oakland’s Dennis Allen, has been fired this season. Two others, the Jets’ Rex Ryan and Atlanta’s Mike Smith, have answered frequent questions about their job security, or lack of it.

The Bears’ Marc Trestman has joined Ryan and Smith among the coaches whose job status is being questioned.

The ugly loss Sunday night at Green Bay dropped the Bears’ record to 3-6. They have lost three straight games and five of six. They have surrendered more than 50 points in two consecutive games sandwiched around their bye week, beginning with a 51-23 defeat at New England 15 days ago.

As Trestman was shown leaving the field on the NBC telecast, analyst Cris Collinsworth said: “He’s a good man, a good coach. But this is going south.”

There also is some talk about the end being in sight for Tom Coughlin, the Giants’ two-time Super Bowl-winning coach. The New York Daily News speculated Sunday that Coughlin perhaps could be nudged toward retirement after the season if the Giants continue to falter.

That was even before the Giants extended their losing streak to four games and dropped their record to 3-6 by losing Sunday at Seattle, 38-17, as the Seahawks amassed a franchise-record 350 rushing yards.

5. Dalton and Hoyer

When the Bengals signed quarterback Andy Dalton in August to a six-year contract extension worth as much as $115 million, the onus was placed on Dalton not only to get the team back into the playoffs this season, but to actually succeed in the postseason. Dalton guided the Bengals to the postseason in each of the previous three seasons but went 0-3 in playoff games.

Things seemed promising when Dalton and the Bengals got off to a 3-0 start to the season, beginning with a triumph at Baltimore in the opener secured on a 77-yard touchdown pass from Dalton to wide receiver A.J. Green with just less than five minutes remaining in that game.

“I was telling the guys before that play, man, ‘If we want to be great, we’ve got to take the next step,’ ” Green said that day. “The whole past of the Bengals, we were like we’d get here and we’re [bad] in big games. But the biggest thing for us this year was setting the mindset of going into every game [confident] we could win. We’re better than the next team and stuff like that, not being cocky but believing in ourselves.”

Green also said of Dalton on opening day: “As far as [what] Andy showed today, it was unbelievable. He’s gonna be a definitely top-five quarterback.”

All has not continued to go as scripted, however.

The Bengals are 2-3-1 since their 3-0 beginning, and they tumbled out of first place in the AFC North with Thursday night’s 24-3 loss at home to the Cleveland Browns. Dalton was dreadful in that game, throwing three interceptions in a 10-for-33, 86-yard passing performance. He had a passer rating of 2—yes, TWO—in the game.

But it hasn’t been merely a one-game issue for Dalton. He has eight touchdown passes and nine interceptions on the season. His passer rating of 78.0 had him ranked 29th in the league entering Sunday’s play.

The Bengals aren’t giving up on Dalton. Far from it. Offensive coordinator Hue Jackson told reporters Friday that he is “joined at the hip” with Dalton. But in a season in which far bigger things were expected, it is time for the supposed franchise quarterback of the Bengals to begin producing.

On the opposite end of that expectations spectrum is Browns quarterback Brian Hoyer.

Hoyer was thought to be merely serving as a place-holder this season for Johnny Manziel, keeping the Browns’ starting-quarterback seat warm until the celebrated first-round draft pick was ready to take over. Hoyer was a journeyman on his fourth NFL team in his seven pro seasons. He didn’t win the starting job this preseason as much as Manziel lost it, playing poorly and directing an obscene gesture at the Redskins’ sideline in a moment that showed just how far he was from being in control of himself on the field and in command of the Cleveland offense.

Every time there has been even a hint this season of Hoyer faltering, there has been clamoring that the time for Manziel might be nearing. But Hoyer has shrugged it all off and has played extremely well. He has thrown 10 touchdown passes and four interceptions, and he has a passer rating of 90.4. He wasn’t spectacular Thursday night in Cincinnati, connecting on 15 of 23 passes for 198 yards, without a touchdown pass or an interception. But he didn’t come undone like Dalton did, and he and the Browns improved their record to 6-3. They took over first place in the AFC North with the Steelers’ loss Sunday to the Jets.

Hoyer has gotten all of that done without wide receiver Josh Gordon, who has one game remaining on his 10-game suspension for violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy. The suspension at one point was to be for the entire season, but was reduced when the league and the NFL Players Association struck a deal modifying a variety of aspects of the sport’s drug policies. Gordon’s return could provide a major boost to Hoyer and the Browns’ offense, if he is able to knock the rust off his game and resemble anything close to the player who had 1,646 receiving yards in only 14 games last season. Hoyer also has had to deal with the loss of center Alex Mack to a season-ending fractured fibula.

It sets up an interesting offseason decision for the Browns, with Hoyer eligible for free agency. Do the Browns reward Hoyer’s productive season with the sort of contract that leaves no doubt he is the starter going forward? If so, do they keep Manziel in the organization as a closely scrutinized backup? Or do they decide that, no matter what Hoyer has done, Manziel still is the future and must be given a chance to start at some point?

Those are questions for down the line, however. Hoyer has established with his play that he is the Browns’ quarterback of the present, and their season is filled with intriguing possibilities thanks to his emergence as a reliable quarterback.

6. Peterson, Rice and A. Smith

The NFL will begin in the coming days to decide whether eight missed games constitute sufficient league-imposed punishment for Adrian Peterson, in the wake of the plea agreement struck last week by the standout running back for the Minnesota Vikings.

Peterson has spent seven games on the exempt-commissioner’s permission list after being de-activated by the Vikings for one game while still on the 53-man roster. He consented to being placed on the exempt list while facing charges in Texas related to him disciplining his 4-year-old son by striking the child with a switch, and he has continued to be paid while not playing.

The NFL announced last week, following Peterson’s plea deal, that it would review Peterson’s case under the personal conduct policy. That policy is in the process of being reworked. But the league also announced in August that players involved in domestic violence cases would be subject to a six-game suspension for a first offense and a lifetime ban reviewable after one year for a repeat offense. It is not clear whether those guidelines are in effect now, with the revamping of the conduct policy ongoing.

The question now in Peterson’s case is whether the games he already has missed will be equated to a suspension. Peterson’s missed games have come with pay, and a suspension would have been without pay. But people familiar with the case have said they believe that Peterson’s representatives will push for his reinstatement with a possible concession that he would pay a fine that would, in effect, serve as a pay-back of some of the money he earned while not playing, and thus make that missed time more like a suspension.

It is not clear whether the league will agree to take that approach, or instead take the position that Peterson’s eight missed games were paid leave awaiting an outcome of his legal case, and now a separate suspension is in order.

The Vikings had a bye this weekend and play Sunday at Chicago. The team has not indicated whether it wants Peterson back. That also is an issue, given the considerable opposition that arose when the Vikings were prepared to allow Peterson to play earlier this season.

The league has provided no timetable as to when its decision on Peterson’s playing status will be made. The players’ union is pushing for Peterson to be removed from the exempt list and reinstated immediately, based on the contention that he agreed to remain on the exempt list only until his legal case was resolved, a person familiar with the situation confirmed. That would make him eligible to play while the league’s review of his case under the personal conduct policy proceeds. If the league resists that effort, the union could file a grievance on Peterson’s behalf early this week and seek an expedited resolution.

Peterson’s plea deal was struck as NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and other league officials were occupied last week with Ray Rice’s appeal hearing. The parties now must submit their final briefs in the Rice case, due next week, and then will await a ruling by Barbara S. Jones, the former federal judge who served as the hearing officer.

It continues to appear unlikely that Rice’s reinstatement this season, even if granted by Jones, would have any practical effect. Front office executives with several NFL franchises continued to say in recent days they see little chance that any team would sign Rice this season if he’s eligible to play. He is on indefinite suspension by the NFL and was released by the Ravens.

People on both sides of the case declined to say in recent days whether Jones had given any indications during the hearing about which way she might rule, or if settlement negotiations are taking place now that the hearing is completed.

One player who is to be reinstated this week is Aldon Smith. The 49ers linebacker has served his entire nine-game suspension for violations of the substance abuse and personal conduct polices.

Some people close to the case thought there was a good chance that Smith would be reinstated by the NFL last week, one week early, as a reward for the manner in which he conducted himself during his suspension. But it didn’t happen.

7. Manning Rebounds

It was predictable that quarterback Peyton Manning would rebound Sunday at Oakland after saying that his play had stunk during Denver’s defeat a week earlier at New England.

Manning’s bounce-back came as expected when he threw for 340 yards and five touchdowns as the Broncos beat the Raiders, 41-17. Perhaps the biggest surprise was that Manning threw two interceptions.

The Raiders fell to 0-9 and took another step toward a winless season. One of their best chances for a victory, in fact, might come when they face the Broncos in Denver in the regular season finale. If the Broncos have nothing at stake as far as postseason seeding and choose to rest Manning and other starters, that could help the Raiders avoid going 0-16, if it comes to that.

The Raiders play at San Diego next weekend. They also have road games remaining at St. Louis and Kansas City, in addition to home games against the Chiefs, 49ers and Buffalo Bills.

8. Sanchez Takes Over

Mark Sanchez is the classic case of the backup quarterback whose reputation league-wide has been at least partially restored by him simply not playing. He hasn’t been on the field. His weaknesses haven’t been exposed, at least not lately. So plenty of people are intrigued by the notion that he could get the job done if given the chance.

Sanchez’s next opportunity is coming now, as he takes over for the injured Nick Foles as the starter in Philadelphia beginning with the Eagles’ game Monday night at home against the Carolina Panthers.

Sanchez had success early in his NFL career, helping the Jets to reach the AFC title game in each of his first two seasons. He was the beneficiary of Jets teams that ran the ball very well and had superb defenses. The Jets ranked first in the league in rushing offense and first in total defense in the 2009 season; they were fourth in rushing offense and third in total defense in 2010. Sanchez totaled 29 touchdown passes and 33 interceptions in those two regular seasons.

The team-wide success faded and the Jets moved on from Sanchez at quarterback. They’re still searching for answers there. Sanchez landed in Philadelphia as Foles’s backup, and there was talk this past summer that he would revive his career playing in Coach Chip Kelly’s fast-break offense with good players surrounding him. It’s time to find out if that will be true, with Foles sidelined for an estimated six to eight weeks after suffering a broken collarbone during a victory at Houston eight days ago.

Sanchez played reasonably well against the Texans in relief of Foles, completing 15 of 22 passes for 202 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions. Although Kelly denied a report that the Eagles had soured on Foles even before his injury, the truth is that Foles was not playing all that well this season. He has 13 touchdown passes and 10 interceptions, after an otherworldly performance last season in which he had 27 touchdown passes and two interceptions. Kelly had spoken of the need for Foles to cut down on his interceptions if they started to cost the Eagles games.

Kelly’s offense has remained highly productive even with Foles’s drop-off in play. The Eagles were ranked eighth in the league in rushing offense, fifth in passing offense and fourth in total offense entering Sunday’s play.

Sanchez will not be backed by the same sort of overpowering defense that he had behind him during his glory days (relatively speaking) with the Jets. The Eagles were ranked 23th in the NFL in total defense when Sunday began. But this is a good team that will take a 6-2 record into Monday night’s game.

The pieces are in place for the Eagles to continue winning if Sanchez produces.

9. Bad Day for Dolphins

The Miami Dolphins had a rough day all around in Detroit.

The Dolphins lost to the Lions, 20-16, on a final-minute touchdown pass from Detroit quarterback Matthew Stafford to running back Theo Riddick.

Miami also lost its left tackle, Branden Albert, to a knee injury that, according to a report by ProFootballTalk, will end Albert’s season. Albert had played extremely well since being signed to a five-year, $47 million contract in free agency in March, and his absence will be a major loss for the Dolphins’ upgraded offensive line.

The Dolphins will have to regroup quickly, given that they host the Bills on Thursday night. Both teams lost Sunday and were left with identical 5-4 records, putting them two games behind the first-place Patriots in the AFC East.

It was a very good bye week for the Patriots. Their division lead grew and the losses by the Bengals and Steelers gave New England a bit more cushion in the chase for the top seed in the AFC playoffs.

10. San Antonio and L.A.

It will be an eventful few months for the futures of two franchises, the Rams and Raiders, as they work to determine where they will play.

Raiders owner Mark Davis met Friday in the Bay Area with representatives of San Antonio who are attempting to lure the team there. The Raiders are in the final year of their stadium lease in Oakland and are exploring options elsewhere while still attempting to work out a deal for a new stadium to remain in the Bay Area.

Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon told reporters during a conference call last week that the Rams have set a Jan. 28 deadline to address their lease situation in St. Louis. The Rams can opt out of their lease at the Edward Jones Dome after this season.

The Rams, Raiders and Chargers have been regarded as the leading candidates to move to Los Angeles, which has been without an NFL franchise since the Rams and Raiders left town following the 1994 season.

There will be questions, of course, about whether the flirtations with other cities are mere negotiating tactics being employed by the teams to attempt to gain leverage for favorable stadium deals to stay where they are. But it is clear that the NFL wants a team or two back in Los Angeles, preferably sooner rather than later.

Several owners have said in recent months they regard the Rams as the franchise best positioned to make the move to Los Angeles. But Mark Davis’s father, late Raiders owner Al Davis, never was shy about moving his team if he believed a better situation could be achieved elsewhere.

It remains to be seen how serious the Rams and Raiders are about their relocation possibilities this time around.