Cardinals’ 7 turnovers lead to loss in NFC title game

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) Carson Palmer couldn’t hold onto the football against a relentless defense, causing one of the NFL’s best offenses to sputter.

And his defense couldn’t come up with the hard-hitting stops needed to salvage any momentum.

The Arizona Cardinals picked a terrible time – on the road in the NFC championship game, no less – to have a mistake-filled performance.

Palmer had six of the Cardinals’ seven turnovers while the defense had a couple of key missed tackles that led to big plays in the Carolina Panthers’ 49-15 win on Sunday night, sending the Panthers to their second Super Bowl while ending what had been the Cardinals’ winningest season with a thud.

Palmer threw four interceptions and was stripped for a pair of fumbles, while All-Pro cornerback Patrick Peterson fumbled a punt return in the first half. And many of those miscues helped Carolina roll to a 24-7 halftime lead with an outcome that was – shockingly – never in doubt.

Arizona’s 13 regular-season wins allowed them to dethrone the two-time NFC champion Seattle Seahawks as NFC West champions, and the Cardinals were in contention for home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs until losing at home in a blowout to the Seahawks in the regular-season finale.

Still, they entered the playoffs as maybe the most complete team in the league. They had the league’s No. 2 scoring offense (30.6 points) and top total offense (408.3 yards), while the defense ranked in the top 10 in both scoring (19.6) and total defense (321.7).

That group never showed up in Charlotte.

Palmer was inconsistent in earning his first career playoff win in last week’s overtime thriller against Green Bay in the divisional round. He struggled throughout on Sunday night, constantly shuffling against the oncoming rush and never looking comfortable.

He finished 23 for 40 for 235 yards with one touchdown, throwing a late pick-6 to Luke Kuechly followed by another interception as the game turned into a rout.

Meanwhile, Arizona’s defense allowed several big plays. It started early when cornerback Justin Bethel missed a chance to bring down Ted Ginn Jr. near the line of scrimmage, and Ginn weaved his way across the field for a 22-yard touchdown for Carolina’s first score in the opening quarter.

It was the start of what turned out to be a horrific game, with Arizona giving up more points than it had all season.

Follow Aaron Beard on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/aaronbeardap and the AP’s NFL site at http://pro32.ap.org

Watch Denver Broncos vs. Indianapolis Colts live on TNF

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The Indianapolis Colts host the Denver Broncos on Thursday Night Football in a battle of two former contenders whose seasons have gone wrong.

Following a strong start, the Broncos went 1-8, as their typically astute defense has struggled to keep opponents out of the end zone. Denver’s offense has not helped the team’s cause either. The Broncos have failed to find clarity at quarterback with Trevor Siemian, Brock Osweiler, and Paxton Lynch all seeing time.

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The Colts have had their own deficiencies this season without star quarterback Andrew Luck. Jacoby Brissett has provided admirable coverage under center with 11 touchdowns and seven interceptions, but he has not been able to keep up with a Colts defense that has let up the second-most points in the NFL this season.

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Broncos vs. Colts

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Watch Dallas Cowboys vs. Oakland Raiders live on SNF

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The Oakland Raiders host the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday Night Football as both teams look to keep their playoff hopes alive.

With a win, Dallas will maintain its chances of sneaking into the playoffs as a wild card. After struggling initially, Dak Prescott has been able to adjust to life without Ezekiel Elliott. Prescott threw for three touchdowns and a season-high 332 yards in the Cowboys win last week over the New York Giants.

If the Cowboys can hang around, Elliott can give them a boost when he returns from suspension next week heading into the final stretch of the season.

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The Raiders also find themselves in need of a win as they are in the middle of a contested AFC West battle with the San Diego Chargers and Kansas City Chiefs. Derek Carr and the Raiders’ offense will need to improve after dropping from the league’s sixth-best offense in 2016 to 19th this season.

Football Night in America

Start time: 7:00 p.m. ET

TV channel: NBC

Live stream: NBCSports.com, NBC Sports app

Cowboys vs. Raiders

Start time: 8:30 p.m. ET

TV channel: NBC

Live stream: NBCSports.com, NBC Sports app