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, Palmerthrew 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.
With their fourth consecutive victory, the Cardinals (8-2) maintained their three-game lead in the NFC West 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 last 25 starts for Arizona.
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. Cincinnati (8-2) led 14-7 at halftime but watched Palmer lead the home team to three consecutive touchdowns in less than 10 minutes during the third quarter for a 28-14 lead.
First, Palmer hit rookie wide receiver J.J. Nelson (four receptions, 142 yards) with a touchdown pass that covered 64 yards. After forcing the Bengals into a quick three-and-out, Palmer did it again, driving the Cardinals down the field before hitting wide receiver John Brown for an 18-yard score.
Following another strong defensive stand, the Cardinals used a 36-yard pass from Palmer to Nelson to set up their third touchdown of the quarter, a 16-yard pass from Palmer to rookie running back David Johnson.
Palmer has 27 touchdowns for the season, putting him ahead of the New England Patriots’ Tom Brady (24) for the most in the NFL.
The Bengals got two rushing touchdowns from running back Jeremy Hill, whose second score on a 1-yard run cut the deficit to 28-21 with 11:26 to play. A sack and lost fumble by Dalton, however, led to a 24-yard field goal by Catanzaro.
Cincinnati wasn’t done. Dalton quickly drove the Bengals toward the end zone again and hooked up for a second time with tight end Tyler Eifert, whose 10-yard touchdown reception cut the lead to 31-28 with 3:44 to play.
Dalton finished 22-for-39 for 315 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions. Bengal running back Giovani Bernard caught eight passes for 128 yards.
The Bengals were flagged seven times for 73 yards in the first half alone, but despite all the penalties they still managed to take a 14-7 lead by the intermission.
They couldn’t convert Palmer‘s first interception of the half into any points, but they did on the Cardinals quarterback’s second, driving 64 yards before Dalton found Eifert in the end zone for a 3-yard touchdown. The touchdown reception extended Eifert’s league-leading total to 10 on the year.
Thanks, in part, to two personal fouls on the Bengals’ defense, the Cardinals were able to answer back with a 10-play, 80-yard drive, capped by Palmer‘s 18-yard scoring strike to tight end Darren Fells. They had to do it without starting left guard Mike Iupati, however, who was lost earlier in the game to a stinger.
Iupati had to be carted off the field last week in Seattle after suffering a neck and head injury. He was replaced by Earl Watford.
Cincinnati closed out the first half with 14-play, 80-yard scoring drive. Hill scored on a 2-yard run that was set up by Bernard’s 441-yard catch and run on a dump pass over the middle after the Cardinals tried to bring the house on Dalton.
NOTES: The Cardinals were without starting WR Michael Floyd (hamstring) and starting RG Jonathan Cooper (knee). OL Ted Larsen started for Cooper and WR Jaron Brown was elevated on the Cardinals’ depth chart. … The Bengals played without starting CB Adam Jones (foot). He was replaced by CB Darqueze Dennard. … With his 12-yard completion to John Brown in the second quarter, Cardinals QB Carson Palmer passed Dave Krieg (38,147) for 18th place on the NFL’s all-time passing yardage list.