CHARLOTTE – The Panthers' relentlessly disruptive defensive front produced the perfect start and put the finishing touches on a 30-20 victory over the Cardinals to snap a four-game losing streak.
"A big win like this is hopefully something that we can build momentum on as we go forward," head coach Ron Rivera said.
On the sixth play of the game, defensive tackle Star Lotulelei sacked quarterback Carson Palmer – the first of what would be eight sacks on the day – and the ball came loose. Linebacker Thomas Davis thought Palmer managed to throw a forward pass, but nevertheless, he scooped it up for a 46-yard touchdown.
"The way we practice here, we take everything to the end zone and we let the refs make the decision," Davis said.
The officials ruled a fumble, and Carolina took a 7-0 lead after Davis' first career touchdown.
"I didn't think it was going to count. But they reviewed it, and it counted," Davis said. "It was a huge momentum shift for our team to start the game.
"To score a defensive touchdown on the opening drive of the game, it definitely goes a long way."
With Carolina protecting a 10-point lead in the closing minutes, it was more disruption up front that helped seal the victory.
Immediately after Arizona safety Tony Jefferson stripped the ball from running back Jonathan Stewart at the Carolina 40-yard line, Palmer tried to connect with running back David Johnson. But defensive end Kony Ealy halted his rush to tip the pass to himself for the interception with 3:13 left.
"I watched his eyes and just played the ball," Ealy said.
Said Arizona head coach Bruce Arians: "Had a chance to get back in it there at the end, and (Ealy) makes a hell of a play batting the ball up in the air."
Carolina built a 24-7 lead at halftime with two short touchdown runs from running back Jonathan Stewart and a 43-yard field goal from Graham Gano.
The Cardinals finally got on the scoreboard in the final minute of the half when wide receiver J.J. Nelson hauled in a 5-yard touchdown. Arizona's offense was limited to just 109 total yards and 1-for-6 on third downs after two quarters.
Gano converted field goals of 52 and 21 yards to extend the lead to 23 in the third quarter.
Arizona started cutting into the lead late in the third quarter. Palmer connected with wide receiver John Brown for a 17-yard score, and Nelson recorded his second touchdown on a 4-yard catch with 5:05 remaining in the game.
But the Panthers maintained a 10-point lead when Palmer's pass to Nelson for the two-point attempt fell incomplete.
Stewart's fumble gave the Cardinals a glimmer of hope, but Ealy's interception allowed the Panthers to salt away a much-needed victory coming off the bye week.
"Long week of preparation and practice, building our confidence, and it showed out there," Stewart said. "Our guys just really came together."
View game action photos from Carolina's 22-19 win over Arizona.