Arizona Shocks Carolina, 33-13, in NFC Playoffs

Carolina Panthers quarterback Jake Delhomme (17) scrambles as he is pursued by Arizona Cardinals' Chike Okeafor (56) during the second quarter of an NFL divisional playoff football game in Charlotte, N.C., Saturday, Jan. 10, 2009. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)
Carolina Panthers quarterback Jake Delhomme (17) scrambles as he is pursued by Arizona Cardinals' Chike Okeafor (56) during the second quarter of an NFL divisional playoff football game in Charlotte, N.C., Saturday, Jan. 10, 2009. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome) (Gerry Broome - AP)
By Mark Maske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 11, 2009

CHARLOTTE, Jan. 10 -- The Arizona Cardinals, easy to dismiss as fraudulent after a regular season in which they won the far-from-imposing NFC West and often played feebly when they had to travel across the country, made a convincing case here Saturday night they're for real.

They won their way into their first NFC championship game, and they did so with vigor. They picked a good time for their first successful East Coast trip of the season, using the passing precision of quarterback Kurt Warner and the receiving exploits of wideout Larry Fitzgerald to beat the Carolina Panthers, 33-13, in a stunningly lopsided conference semifinal at Bank of America Stadium.

"Not a lot of people had very nice things to say about us or gave us a chance, so we're working hard to earn respect," Cardinals Coach Ken Whisenhunt said. "It showed we can come to the East Coast and win a football game."

The Cardinals either will host the NFC title game next Sunday against the Philadelphia Eagles or go back on the road to face the New York Giants at Giants Stadium.

Fitzgerald didn't hide his rooting interest in the Cardinals' jubilant postgame locker room.

"I'm looking for a Philly hat right now," the wide receiver said. "We'd love to have a home game."

The Cardinals have won two games in the same postseason for the first time in franchise history. They're on their best run of playoff success since winning the 1947 NFL championship game as the Chicago Cardinals, that coming in the days when there was only one playoff game in a season. They lost the NFL championship game in 1948.

The Cardinals played this game without injured wide receiver Anquan Boldin, but it didn't matter because the Panthers couldn't cover Fitzgerald. He ran free in the secondary all night and had eight catches for 166 yards and a touchdown.

Warner also threw a touchdown pass to rookie running back Tim Hightower in a 21-of-32, 220-yard passing performance. Tailback Edgerrin James provided a rushing touchdown. Place kicker Neil Rackers added four field goals for the Cardinals, who raced to a 27-7 halftime lead and never looked back.

Hightower, formerly of Episcopal High School in Alexandria, finished with 76 rushing yards.

"We ran the ball," Warner said. "We were able to throw the ball. We had big plays everywhere. [Fitzgerald] is a huge playmaker for us."

The Panthers got an early touchdown run by rookie tailback Jonathan Stewart, then yielded 33 straight points. Carolina's powerful running game never got going, as tailback DeAngelo Williams became a non-factor and had only a dozen carries. It was up to quarterback Jake Delhomme to try to lead a comeback, and he failed miserably.

Delhomme threw five interceptions, one shy of the NFL postseason record, and lost a fumble on his 34th birthday. He finished with 17 completions for 205 passing yards and a cosmetic late touchdown to wide receiver Steve Smith, and a season of seemingly immense promise here ended abruptly.

"I had a hand in six turnovers," Delhomme said. "You're not going to beat anybody, especially a playoff game. I should get the blame. It's inexcusable. It's disappointing."

Delhomme said he apologized to his teammates in the huddle late in the game.

Asked if this was the most disappointing outing of his career, he said: "It's not even remotely close. . . . I'm not looking for sympathy one bit. That's the last thing I want. Obviously the work I put in this week was not enough. To look back and say we had a good season, I can't. I can't do that right now. It's too fresh in my mind."

The Cardinals got bad news before kickoff when they learned they'd be without one of their two Pro Bowl wide receivers. Boldin tested his strained left hamstring by doing some running on the field a couple hours before the game but, according to Whisenhunt, wasn't particularly close to being ready to play.

Boldin suffered the injury on a 71-yard catch and run for a touchdown during the Cardinals' first-round playoff victory over the Atlanta Falcons last weekend. But Warner still had two 1,000-yard wide receivers at his disposal in Fitzgerald and Steve Breaston. For the fourth-seeded Cardinals, the bigger issue was proving they even belonged on the same field with the second-seeded Panthers, who were rested and healthy after a first-round bye.

The Panthers went 8-0 at home during the regular season. The Cardinals, meanwhile, were 0-5 in road games on the East Coast. A few of those defeats came in lopsided fashion, including 47-7 to the Patriots last month on a snowy day in New England. The Cardinals also surrendered 56 points to the New York Jets at Giants Stadium and 48 points in a game at Philadelphia. In all, they were outscored 202-102 in those five games. But they had been competitive in a 27-23 defeat to the Panthers here in October.

"To get a road win on the East Coast and get that monkey off our back and not have to hear about that anymore," Fitzgerald said, "I'm more excited about that than anything else."

The Panthers scored first on Stewart's nine-yard touchdown run. But the Cardinals got even on Warner's three-yard touchdown pass to Hightower, then just kept going. In the first half alone, Warner threw for 200 yards, and Fitzgerald had six catches for 151 yards. Delhomme threw two interceptions and lost a fumble before halftime.

Warner threw a third-quarter interception to linebacker Jon Beason. But Delhomme gave the ball right back with another interception, then threw his fourth and fifth interceptions of the night in the fourth quarter.

"Our defense played phenomenal," Fitzgerald said. "It seemed like everybody in the secondary had a pick today. With our defense playing like that, we had to carry our weight on the offense."

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