GLENDALE, Ariz. — Carson Palmer said Sunday night’s showdown against the Cincinnati Bengals wasn’t going to be “just another game.”
The contest carried some extra weight on a few different fronts, from it being the 100th game the Arizona Cardinals would play in University of Phoenix Stadium, to it coming against the former team Palmer demanded to be traded from, and to it being a chance for his team to improve to 8-2 and tighten its hold on one of the top two NFC playoff seeds.
The Cardinals hit the trifecta with a 34-31 victory over the Bengals during their second consecutive appearance on NBC’s “Sunday Night Football,” as Palmer overcame two first-quarter interceptions to throw for four touchdowns.
The Bengals rallied behind quarterback Andy Dalton (315 yards, two touchdowns) to tie the score, 31-31, with 1:08 to play on a 43-yard field goal by kicker Mike Nugent. However, Palmer threw two quick completions, and the Cardinals were aided in a big way by a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on Cincinnati defensive tackle Domata Peko for “calling out signals.”
The penalty turned what would have been a 45-yard game-winning field goal try by kicker Chandler Catanzaro into a 33-yarder, which Catanzaro nailed with two seconds remaining.
“I was concerned that (the officials) would blow it, but it was obviously what they called — one of those jump-at-you deals,” said Cardinals coach Bruce Arians, whose Arizona teams improved to 23-5 against opponents outside the NFC West, including 7-1 this season.
With their fourth consecutive victory, the Cardinals (8-2) maintained their three-game division lead and their one-game edge in the race for the No. 2 seed in the NFC postseason.
Palmer, who finished 20 of 31 for 317 yards, improved to 21-4 in his past 25 starts.
The Bengals, who held their previous three opponents to 10 points or fewer, lost for a second consecutive week after opening the season 8-0. However, it was the penalty on Peko that had coach Marvin Lewis steaming afterward.
What we learned about the Bengals:
1. The unsportsmanlike-conduct penalty on defensive tackle Domata Peko for “calling out signals” will be a topic of discussion for days, if not weeks and months. Here is how Peko said the play went down when asked if he said anything that should warrant a penalty: “Carson (Palmer) was under center, and they were kind of huddled up trying to quick-count us or whatever and were just on the line there and they jumped. They were on the ball pretty quick, and I am a big communicator on our defensive line about runs, passes, trying to communicate. I was just saying, ‘Get set, get set’ because they were on the ball quick, and I guess when I said, ‘Get set,’ they thought I was saying ‘hike’ or something. I didn’t say hike. It shouldn’t have come down to that play.”
2. The Bengals are hurting in the secondary, specifically at cornerback. Dre Kirkpatrick said the team can’t dwell on that or use it as an excuse, even though the Cardinals exploited that weakness during their game-winning drive. “At the end of the day, that doesn’t really matter because it is all about the next man,” Kirkpatrick said. “The next man has to know the same details as the starter.”
3. Running back Giovani Bernard continues to be a dangerous receiving threat out of the backfield, and the Bengals likely will choose to try throwing to him more often. He caught eight passes for 128 yards Sunday. “He’s good when he’s matched up on linebackers,” quarterback Andy Dalton said.”
–RB Jeremy Hill ended up being the Bengals’ leading rusher with 45 yards on 13 carries, an average of 3.5 yards per run. “They played it well,” OL Andrew Whitworth said of the Cardinals. “They do great job against that. I think we got in some situations in the second half where we just had to abandon it.”
–QB Andy Dalton, despite struggling during a pivotal stretch early in the second half, clearly played well enough to lead the Bengals to a come-from-behind victory. He completed 22 of 39 passes for 315 yards and two touchdowns with no interceptions. Dalton was still lamenting a near touchdown pass to WR A.J. Green. “I left it short,” he said. “It got bobbled around, and I don’t know what the rule is when he’s not the first one to touch it and when he stepped out of bounds and all that kind of stuff.”
–DT Geno Atkins had four tackles, two for losses, and a sack, but he wasn’t much of a factor in the second half. “We’ve got to keep working,” coach Marvin Lewis said. “We’ve got to get sacks and rush, and all those things have got to go on one-minute drives.”