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Sunday, January 4, 2009
First look: Cardinals-Panthers

By Mike Sando
ESPN.com

Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

No. 4 seed Arizona Cardinals (10-7) at No. 2 seed Carolina Panthers (12-4), Saturday, 8:15 p.m. ET

PHOENIX -- The Panthers might not recognize the Cardinals when Arizona visits Carolina in the divisional round Saturday at 8:15 p.m. ET.

Kurt Warner and the Cardinals' passing game were at the peak of their aerial powers when Carolina overcame a 17-3 deficit to beat Arizona, 27-23, during a Week 8 game at Bank of America Stadium. Warner completed 35 of 49 passes for 381 yards and two touchdowns as Arizona made no apologies for ignoring its then-struggling ground game.

For Arizona, that game marked receiver Anquan Boldin's return from facial injuries and Edgerrin James' final start of the 2008 regular season. Injuries were limiting the team's options at tight end, another reason the Cardinals were committing themselves to a wide-open style of offense featuring three or more wide receivers most of the time.

Expect the Cardinals to bring a different type of team to Carolina for the rematch. We break down some of the differences while taking a closer look at what to expect from Arizona:

1. More James.

The Cardinals have succeeded in establishing at least the threat of a running game over the last two weeks.

The process began during a 47-7 defeat at New England, but few noticed because the Cardinals fell behind so decisively. James ran well on limited opportunities in that game. He ran better on additional opportunities in the final regular-season game. And when the Cardinals needed balance against Atlanta in the wild-card round, James carried 16 times for 73 yards, opening up the play-action passing game.

James' playoff experience and fresh legs are giving the Cardinals confidence in an area that has troubled them much of the season. Running the ball effectively requires committing to the run, and the Cardinals appear more eager to do that lately.

2. Less Boldin.

Injuries to Boldin's face, shoulder and hamstring have turned this into a difficult season for him even though the receiver's overall numbers landed him in the Pro Bowl again.

The Cardinals have not yet said whether the hamstring injury Boldin suffered against the Falcons might prevent him from playing effectively Saturday.

Arizona coaches had made Boldin such an integral part of the offense earlier in the season that the added responsibilities seemed to weigh down the receiver, perhaps leading to problems in other areas of his game, including ball security.

Boldin is still a threat to make big plays if he's available, but the Cardinals aren't building their offense around him to the same degree. Boldin's 30-yard carry at Carolina in Week 8 made him the team's leading rusher. The Cardinals have not been using him to manufacture rushing yardage, a trend that should continue with James providing a spark.

3. Tighter defense.

The Cardinals' performance against the Falcons' Michael Turner provided a blueprint for how Arizona must play defense against the Panthers' similarly impressive ground game.

Carolina won the regular-season meeting between the teams after the Panthers held the ball for the final 5:57 of the fourth quarter, a humiliating way for any defense to finish a game. Sloppy tackling cost the Cardinals that day.

The Cardinals played a disciplined game defensively against the Falcons. They'll need more of the same to have any chance against DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart and elusive receiver Steve Smith.

5. More tight ends.

Jerame Tuman, since released, was the Cardinals' only healthy tight end for that Week 8 game at Carolina.

Stephen Spach, who caught the clinching 23-yard reception against the Falcons, signed with Arizona two days after the Carolina game.

Ben Patrick is healthy enough to give Arizona another option at the position.

With fullback Tim Castille moving to tight end, Arizona used two tight ends on 15.2 percent of its snaps at Carolina in Week 8. The Cardinals used two tight ends on 31.6 percent of snaps against the Falcons in the wild-card game.

The Cardinals used four wide receivers on 28 snaps against the Panthers, but only one snap against the Falcons (in part because Boldin left the game).

Expect a more conventional Arizona offense this time around.

6. More DRC.

Rookie cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie has emerged as a big-play defender for the Cardinals over the second half of the season.

His first NFL start came one week after the Cardinals played the Panthers. Rodgers-Cromartie has five interceptions in his last eight games, including one against the Falcons. He returned one 99 yards for a touchdown. He has also blocked a punt, setting up a touchdown return.

Rodgers-Cromartie gives the Cardinals a better chance matching up against Smith and Muhsin Muhammad.

7. Less respect.

Arizona played the no-respect angle to great effect in the wild-card round after hearing about their shortcomings in great detail.

The Panthers are 8-0 at home this season. They've been better and more consistent than the Cardinals all season. Arizona has struggled on the road.

The Cardinals are obvious underdogs. Expect them to embrace the role.