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At their best, the Arizona Cardinals were magnificent, but boy was it a brutal ending

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TEMPE, Arizona — At their best, the Arizona Cardinals were magnificent, but boy was it a brutal ending.

The magnitude of their 49-15 thumping at the hands of the Carolina Panthers in the NFC championship game made it hard to appreciate the record-breaking season that it was.

"We didn't play how we played all year," said Tyrann Mathieu, who could only watch on crutches on the sideline after tearing his ACL a month ago, "holding each other accountable, being encouraging. All those things play a factor in being a championship football team."

No one had a rougher night than Carson Palmer. After setting regular-season franchise records for yards passing and touchdown passes, he played probably his worst game since coming to Arizona.

The Cardinals committed seven turnovers, and Palmer was responsible for six of them — four interceptions and two lost fumbles.

"Less than 24 hours after your season ends, it's hard to start thinking about next season without dwelling on the past and thinking about the last game," he said before cleaning out his locker Monday. "But it will definitely fuel my fire. It will fuel our fire as a team and we'll bounce back."

Palmer is well aware that he carries the reputation as a quarterback who can't win the big game.

"Until you do it, it's just one of those things you've got to break through," he said, "and I will."

After the game, coach Bruce Arians emphatically said Palmer's injured right index finger had nothing to do with the quarterback's performance.

But on Monday, Palmer mentioned the finger as the reason he would not play in this weekend's Pro Bowl.

"I'm going to let my hand heal up," he said.

At his Monday news conference, Arians was a loss to explain why the team's best players played so poorly Sunday night — not only Palmer, but Patrick Peterson, Calais Campbell and even Larry Fitzgerald.

"Because it hadn't happened before," Arians said. "That's the unusual part. That's the part that I'll drive myself crazy trying to figure out why."

The ugly finale made it difficult to remember that the Cardinals won a franchise-record 13 regular-season games, unseated Seattle as NFC West champions and earned the No. 2 seed in the playoffs. Along the way were a series of one-sided victories, and dramatic victories over Seattle, Minnesota and Cincinnati.

Here are things to consider looking back on the 2015 season and ahead to 2016.

PHOTO: Arizona Cardinals guard Jonathan Cooper, left, and offensive tackle D.J. Humphries clean out their lockers, Monday, Jan. 25, 2016, in Tempe, Ariz. The Cardinals lost to the Carolina Panthers in the NFC Championship football game to end their season. (AP Photo/Matt York)
Arizona Cardinals guard Jonathan Cooper, left, and offensive tackle D.J. Humphries clean out their lockers, Monday, Jan. 25, 2016, in Tempe, Ariz. The Cardinals lost to the Carolina Panthers in the NFC Championship football game to end their season. (AP Photo/Matt York)

THE PASS RUSH: In his weekly radio interview Monday, general manager Steve Keim said his first order of business will be finding a pass rusher.

It was a problem most of the season.

"As a secondary, it would make our job a lot easier when we've got guys that can get to the quarterback like the blink of an eye," cornerback Jerraud Powers said.

SECONDARY CHANGES: Powers and safety Rashad Johnson are among the team's 17 unrestricted free agents.

The so-called "No Fly Zone," so strong most of the season, had an awful night on Sunday, and Arians mentioned the two positions when asked what the team needs.

"Another corner and safety with some length and speed," he said. "They're not easy to find, but that's something I'd like to look for."

CONTRACT ISSUES: The Cardinals will look to extend the contract of Mathieu and he's hoping it happens.

"Obviously I love this team," he said. "I love the locker room, I love our coaching staff, upper management. I think this is the perfect place for me. I wouldn't mind spending the rest of my life here."

Campbell, meanwhile, is entering the final year of his contract. He's due to make $9.5 million next season with a whopping $15.25 million cap hit. He said he'd be willing to talk about restructuring the deal.

The O-LINE: The right side of the offensive line will almost certainly be different next season.

Arians said he expects Jonathan Cooper to be ready to move back into the right guard spot, where Ted Larsen took over early in the season. And right tackle Bobby Massie, an unrestricted free agent, probably won't be back.

That clears the way for first-round draft pick D.J. Humphries, who was inactive for every game.

ROOKIE RETURNS: The best player for Arizona on Sunday night could well have been rookie running back David Johnson.

Expect the Cardinals to plan big things for him in the coming season, both as a runner and as a receiver.


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