NFL Nation: Cardinals-Panthers playoffs

 
  Streeter Lecka/Getty Images
  Arizona's Larry Fitzgerald added to his season-long highlight reel, catching eight passes for 166 yards in a 33-13 win over the Panthers.

Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The book on the Arizona Cardinals needs an overhaul, and fast.

Everything you thought you knew about this no-longer-forlorn franchise merits revisiting following the Cardinals' 33-13 victory over the Carolina Panthers in the NFC divisional round at Bank of America Stadium.

The Arizona team that struggled against quality opponents outside the NFC West has suddenly defeated two of them in eight days.

The Arizona team that couldn't win on the East Coast handed the Panthers their first home defeat of the season.

  Cardinals-Panthers highlights
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  Watch highlights from Arizona's 33-13 win over the Panthers.

The Arizona team that finished the regular season ranked last among NFL teams in rushing yards suddenly can run the ball in January, when it matters most.

The Arizona team that once seemed less popular in its home market than the Dallas Cowboys has now won three playoff games since Jerry Jones' franchise last tasted postseason success.

"Yes, sir!" defensive end Antonio Smith shouted as he charged toward the visitors' locker room.

That was about as boisterous as the Cardinals would get after the most significant victory since the 1947 Chicago Cardinals defeated Philadelphia for the NFL title.

Oh, they were thrilled to prove skeptics wrong and advance to the NFC title game against the winner of the Eagles-Giants game. But they stopped short of jubilant.

"We know we have to continue to stay humble," Pro Bowl strong safety Adrian Wilson said. "We are taking everything in stride."

For that they can thank coach Ken Whisenhunt and the staff he brought to the desert. The success Whisenhunt enjoyed in Pittsburgh -- repeated playoff berths and a Super Bowl title -- gave him a level of credibility his predecessors lacked.

The Cardinals have responded. They are surprising their critics, but not themselves. The Cardinals are dangerous and they know it.

"We've gone through a lot and we're playing pretty good football right now, and that's what is important," Whisenhunt said.

Eight things the Cardinals' victory demonstrated:

1. Quarterback play trumps the ground game

Kurt Warner vs. Jake Delhomme On third down
  Warner Delhomme
Comp-Att 9-13 2-7
Pass Yards 106 18
TD-INT 1-0 0-1
First downs 7 2
Passer rating 119.4 0.0
-- ESPN Stats & Information
Few teams in the NFL can run the ball consistently well against eight-man fronts. Most eventually need their quarterbacks to make plays down the field.

The Panthers' Jake Delhomme hadn't been asked to win many games with his arm. He had thrown 15 touchdown passes with 12 interceptions during the regular season. The running game carried Carolina this far, but the Panthers weren't built to play from behind.

The Cardinals had no such worries after falling behind 7-0 early in the game. They've thrown the ball successfully all season. An improved running game has afforded Kurt Warner the luxury of a play-action passing game. The combination makes the Cardinals much more difficult to defend.

2. The Cardinals' skeptics are running low on ammo

Discounting the Cardinals as a product of a historically inept division lost traction when Arizona beat the 11-5 Atlanta Falcons in the wild-card round.

The Falcons were playing on the road with a rookie quarterback, you say.

OK, but what about the Panthers? Delhomme, 34, has 80 regular-season starts and Super Bowl credentials. The Cardinals intercepted him five times.

Five Arizona players have combined for seven interceptions in two playoff games.

The Cardinals' defense is onto something.

3. Arizona's run defense prevents the big play

Carolina led the NFL this season with 24 running plays of at least 20 yards and six of at least 40 yards.

The Cardinals' defense allowed eight rushes of 20-plus yards, seventh-fewest in the league, and one run of 40-plus yards, tied for fourth-fewest.

Sure tackling and disciplined play were the key variables for Arizona for a second consecutive
week.

The Cardinals allowed a 31-yard run to the Panthers early, and Whisenhunt said the lapse worried him some. But the Cardinals' run defense tightened.

The Cardinals' pass rush and coverage were good enough to let Arizona load up against DeAngelo Williams on likely running downs. And when Arizona pulled ahead, the Panthers' running game became even less of a factor.

Williams finished with 12 carries for 63 yards. A week earlier, the Falcons' Michael Turner carried 18 times for 42 yards.

4. This rookie is headed for the Pro Bowl next season

Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie leapt high to break up a deep pass for superstar Panthers receiver Steve Smith. The rookie first-round choice also picked off a Delhomme pass near the goal line.

Rodgers-Cromartie has six interceptions in his last nine games, counting playoffs.

The Cardinals moved him into the starting lineup in Week 9, one game after their 27-23 loss to the Panthers. His development since that game has given the Cardinals another dimension on defense. His ability to cover gives the Cardinals more flexibility in committing extra defenders against the run, a key to the Cardinals' playoff success.

5. For some, momentum beats a week of rest

Beating the Atlanta Falcons in the wild-card round sent the Cardinals to Carolina with momentum on their side. A more experienced playoff team might have benefited from a down week, but the Cardinals' experience in the wild-card round prepared them well for Saturday.

"You get that extra game, you get that extra feel of how it is to win or how it is to play in the playoffs, the atmosphere," linebacker Karlos Dansby said. "We were used to that when we came here and after we settled down, we were a well-oiled machine. Their timing was off, Delhomme's timing was off, even the running backs, finding the holes."

6. The Cardinals can win without Boldin

Steve Smith vs. Larry Fitzgerald
  Smith Fitzgerald
Thrown to 7 13
Complete 2 8
Yards 43 166
TD 1 1
Defended 2 1
INT * 3 1
* Pass intercepted while targeted at WR
-- ESPN Stats & Information
A hamstring injury prevented Pro Bowl receiver Anquan Boldin from playing, but the Cardinals' offense has evolved enough to win without him.

Having another Pro Bowl wideout in Larry Fitzgerald certainly helps. Fitzgerald again revealed himself as the best jump-ball catcher in the league. He caught eight passes for 166 yards. At one point in the first half, Fitzgerald had 151 yards to 70 for the Panthers.

The Cardinals' renewed attention to the running game is making Fitzgerald even more dangerous. They finished with 43 carries and only 32 pass attempts.

"How exciting it is to come out there and run the ball effectively and just mix in the passing game," right guard Deuce Lutui said. "It keeps them on their toes."

7. Turnovers aren't a fluke

Delhomme makes for an easy target after tossing five interceptions. The Cardinals forced some of those turnovers. They've been doing it all season.

Arizona's recent run on interceptions makes them especially dangerous. They led the NFL with 17 fumble recoveries during the regular season.

8. The Cardinals' coaches are hotter commodities

Russ Grimm, the Cardinals' assistant head coach and offensive line coach, was already a candidate for the St. Louis Rams' head coaching job heading into the divisional round.

Offensive coordinator Todd Haley was a potential candidate in Oakland.

Both men become more attractive candidates as the Cardinals continue to advance. That's a problem the Cardinals can live with and a sign of the organization's progress under Whisenhunt.

Haley called a very good game against the Panthers. The Cardinals passed on 11 of their first 15 plays, then ran the ball six plays in a row and 15 of their next 22.

Haley mixed personnel effectively and avoided some of the cute plays that didn't work so well in the wild-card round. Those included an ill-fated reverse and an incomplete pass for Rodgers-Cromartie.

The Cardinals stuck with their strengths Saturday and it paid off.

 
  Streeter Lecka/Getty Images
  Panthers quarterback Jake Delhomme contributed six turnovers in Arizona's 33-13 win over Carolina.

Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Never before had the Carolina Panthers been so set up.

They were healthy coming off a bye week and playing at Bank of America Stadium, where they're supposed to be unbeatable. The Arizona Cardinals were coming to town. Name the last time Arizona won a playoff game before last week.

Just let "Double Trouble'' (running backs DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart) and receiver Steve Smith do their thing. Hope for the Philadelphia Eagles to beat the New York Giants on Sunday to put the NFC Championship Game in Charlotte and put the Panthers on their way to the Super Bowl. It all seemed so clear and so easy.

Maybe that was the problem. Maybe the Panthers -- players, coaches and even fans -- got way ahead of themselves.

"In a nutshell, we picked a bad day to have a bad day,'' coach John Fox said after a 33-13 loss to Arizona.

Fox generally doesn't understate things, but this time he did. The Panthers picked a bad day to have a horrible night and that gives rise to some issues for a team that didn't seem to have any.

  Cardinals-Panthers highlights
  NFL.com Video
  Highlights from Arizona's 33-13 win over Carolina.

If there's a common thread to the Fox era in Carolina, it's this: When not much is expected of the Panthers, they'll surprise the heck out of you. Remember the 2003 Super Bowl run and the 2005 trip to the NFC Championship Game when the Panthers ran out of running backs and Smith carried them?

The flip side is, when the Panthers have been expected to do big things, they haven't. There was the season following the Super Bowl, which was a dud. And there was 2006, when Keyshawn Johnson was supposed to be the missing link, but wasn't.

Then, there was Saturday night. That's when the team with a big black cat for a mascot hacked up a fur ball.

Take nothing away from the Cardinals, who won two playoff games in a season for the first time in their existence. But take a lot away from the Panthers because that's what you do when a No. 2 seed gets blown out at home by a No. 4 seed.

By the end of it, Team Harmony, which supposedly had something magical happen after Ken Lucas forgave Smith for punching him in training camp, was a team exposed in multiple areas.

Kurt Warner vs. Jake Delhomme On third down
  Warner Delhomme
Comp-Att 9-13 2-7
Pass Yards 106 18
TD-INT 1-0 0-1
First downs 7 2
Passer rating 119.4 0.0
-- ESPN Stats & Information

Start with quarterback Jake Delhomme. The man who was the king of the comeback in that 2003 season was the master of disaster. He threw five interceptions and lost a fumble.

"Jake had a great year for us and we had a great season,'' Fox said.

Delhomme made a remarkable recovery from Tommy John elbow surgery and the Panthers went 12-4 to win the NFC South. But an awful lot of that goes out the window when you lose like this and come up so short of expectations. That was apparent as the fans were booing Delhomme from the second quarter on.

"To look back and say we had a good season. I can't say that right now,'' said Delhomme, who completed 17 of 34 passes for 205 yards and finished with a 39.1 passer rating.

One thing about the Panthers is they've always stood by Delhomme. In the emotional aftermath of the loss, Fox stayed on that path.

"I think Jake's a hell of a quarterback who had a bad night,'' Fox said. "No, the sky's not falling.''

Fox is big on saying you don't make any judgments on performance until after you've seen the film.

It might be wise for Fox and the Panthers' brass to watch this film of Delhomme closely and ponder if it might be time for a change in the offseason. What good is it to have a receiver like Steve Smith if you can only get him two catches for 43 yards in a huge game?

But don't put all the blame for this one on Delhomme. Fox, who entered the game with a 5-2 postseason record, got totally outfoxed. Even before things got ugly, Fox and his staff made some questionable moves.

Steve Smith vs. Larry Fitzgerald
  Smith Fitzgerald
Thrown to 7 13
Complete 2 8
Yards 43 166
TD 1 1
Defended 2 1
INT * 3 1
* Pass intercepted while targeted at WR
-- ESPN Stats & Information

Although they seemed to be set up to play Fox football (run the ball and play good defense), they never did. Williams and Stewart combined for only nine carries in the first half and 15 for the game. In theory, defenses are supposed to pick their poison against the Panthers -- you try to shut down either Smith or the running game.

The Cardinals, who've never been confused with the 1985 Chicago Bears, shut down Smith and stuffed the running game and made it look easy. Arizona also made it look easy on offense, showing plenty of flaws in a Carolina defense that is supposed to be good.

It's also a Carolina defense that's coached by Fox -- who's supposed to be a defensive genius -- and Mike Trgovac. A lot of the blame should fall on their plan. Wouldn't it have been a good idea to have a defender in the vicinity of Larry Fitzgerald on occasion?

Fitzgerald finished with eight catches for 166 yards, including six catches for 151 yards in the first quarter.

"It's been a great season,'' Carolina defensive end Julius Peppers said. "We would have liked to have gone further and accomplished more goals, but it didn't happen. Next year, you've just got to see if you can get some of those things corrected and win the ultimate goal.''

Ah, next season. That's all that's left to talk about for the Panthers now. The expectations are going to be high once again. In that setting, doing what you're supposed to do is the only way to avoid disappointment.

Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Jake Delhomme is going to be credited with one of the worst performances in postseason history.

It all may be justified because Delhomme threw five interceptions and may even have put his future with the Panthers in jeopardy.

But, before Delhomme takes the blame, let's just throw out a few questions.

Why was the game even in Delhomme's hands in the first place? Long before it got out of control, the Panthers had an opportunity to try to run their vaunted "Double Trouble'' running game. Inexplicably,

  Cardinals-Panthers highlights
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  Watch highlights from Arizona's 33-13 win over the Panthers.
they didn't. DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart combined for nine carries in the first half. That falls on coach John Fox and offensive coordinator Jeff Davidson.

And what happened to Steve Smith? When you've got a guy who is arguably the best receiver in the NFL shouldn't he get a few catches? That falls on Fox, Davidson and Delhomme, not Smith.

And speaking of the best receiver in the NFL, why didn't Carolina have some defenders in the vicinity of Larry Fitzgerald, especially when Anquan Boldin is not playing? Fox is supposed to be a defensive genius, especially at playoff time, but he didn't look like it against Kurt Warner and the Cardinals.

All right, now forget all that and put the blame on Delhomme.

Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The Cardinals did all the things they needed to do -- and then some -- in dominating the Panthers to reach the NFC Championship Game.

The Cardinals are suddenly a dangerous team. They can run the ball well enough to keep teams honest, and well enough to finish games. They can beat teams in the passing game even when Pro Bowl receiver Anquan Boldin does not play. They are opportunistic and increasingly disciplined on defense.

Logic says Arizona will have a hard time winning in the championship round if faced with a trip to the Meadowlands to play the Giants.

Logic also said the Cardinals couldn't win on the East Coast against the only team with an unbeaten home record this season, but Arizona had little trouble against the Panthers. The Cardinals played tougher games against the 49ers, Rams and Seahawks in the NFC West.

The Cardinals are playing the underdog role to maximum effect. They'll probably get another chance in the championship round. If their defense keeps forcing turnovers, the Cardinals will have a good chance against anyone, no matter the venue.

Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Folks, we might be seeing the end of an era tonight.

Jake Delhomme is having the kind of game that can cost a quarterback his job. Seriously, he's been nothing short of dismal and the crowd at Bank of America Stadium, which didn't always appreciate Delhomme in his good days, has turned on him. ESPN.com NASCAR writer David Newton in the stands texted me to say there's a guy in the crowd offering to sell his Delhomme jersey for $2.

As of the moment, he doesn't have a taker.

You've got to wonder if coach John Fox and general manager Marty Hurney will feel that way if things continue going the way they are. Then again, you've got to question the wisdom of Fox and offensive coordinator Jeff Davidson putting so much on Delhomme's shoulders.

When you've got the "Double Trouble'' running game, don't you use it? Well, down 27-7 near the end of the first half, it's too late for that. But, maybe, it never should have come to this.

Now, Delhomme's going to have to pull of the comeback of his life for the Panthers to have any shot -- and maybe to have any shot at keeping his job for next season.

Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

Fitzgerald

CHARLOTTE -- The headline says it all. Larry Fitzgerald is on pace to outgain the entire Panthers offense, and it's not even close with 44 seconds remaining in the first half.

If the Cardinals win this game -- they lead, 27-7 -- it's fair to ask: Should MVP balloting take place before the playoffs? If you knew the Colts would lose in the first round and the Cardinals might advance to the NFC title game, would that affect your thinking on the MVP?

Kurt Warner had my vote three-fourths of the way through the regular season. Peyton Manning would have been the choice after the regular season. Warner has completed 13 of 16 passes with two touchdowns in this game. He put up good numbers in a wild-card victory.

Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

CHARLOTTE -- Lots of "wows" and other expressions of surprise here in the Bank of America Stadium press box.

The Cardinals are passing, running and capitalizing on opportunities early in this game. Larry Fitzgerald has lived up to his reputation as a great jump-ball catcher.

Edgerrin James made a linebacker miss in stretching a screen pass into a 9-yard gain deep in Carolina territory. Just as they did in Week 8, the Cardinals forced and recovered a Jake Delhomme fumble deep in Panthers territory, setting up a touchdown.

Sometimes a road team needs to withstand the opponent's initial rush. The Cardinals have done that. They need to tighten up their tackling and coverage, but if you had told Ken Whisenhunt his team would hold a 14-7 lead in the first quarter, he would have taken it.

Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

CHARLOTTE -- The Cardinals named injured receiver Anquan Boldin inactive against the Panthers in their divisional playoff game.

Boldin's absence will likely affect the Cardinals' approach to this game, as discussed previously. Also inactive for Arizona: cornerback Eric Green, linebacker Victor Hobson, tackle Elliot Vallejo, tackle Brandon Keith, defensive tackle Alan Branch and tight end Ben Patrick. Brian St. Pierre is the third quarterback. If he plays, Kurt Warner and Matt Leinart could not return.

That leaves Stephen Spach and Leonard Pope as the active tight ends. Pope hasn't played much this season. He previously struggled with false-start penalties on running plays.

Inactive for Carolina: receiver D.J. Hackett, safety Quinton Teal, linebacker Adam Seward, guard Mackenzy Bernadeau, receiver Kenneth Moore, defensive tackle Darwin Walker and defensive tackle J'Vonne Parker. Matt Moore is the third quarterback.

Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

CHARLOTTE -- Light rains are falling at Bank of America Stadium, but temperatures remain in the upper 50s with about 2 hours until kickoff.

I was expecting colder weather. Low temperatures have been adjusted to the mid 40s, up from the low 30s earlier in the week. Wet conditions might hurt the Cardinals' passing game, but these conditions are far from wintry.

Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- One interesting thing to keep an eye on will be how Carolina's defense responds after a bit of a slump late in the season.

With defensive tackles Maake Kemoeatu and Damione Lewis each missing some time with injuries, the Carolina defense wasn't nearly as good late in the season as it was earlier in the year. After 10 regular-season games, Carolina ranked No. 8 in total defense (17th against the run and fifth against the pass). But the Panthers allowed about 100 yards more a game over the final six games and ended up ranked 18th overall (20th against the run and 16th against the pass).

Carolina allowed 394 yards and 29 points per game over the last six contests.

Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

Zane from San Jose, Calif., writes: One of the BEST things that has happened for the Cards may go overlooked. They get to play well into the EVENING on Saturday night. As a 20 year coach of elite athletes training for U.S. Olympic teams, I understand the extreme disadvantage that comes with having to travel east, through 3 time zones, and then compete early in the day.

At the highest level of sport, this disadvantage is profound and universal. In the night game, the Cards will be playing the game when their bodies and metabolisms are at their peak. This will significantly help offset the colder game temperature. While this fact is certainly not an automatic predictor for Cards success, e.g., see the "Thanksgiving Day Debacle", I am sure that the players and coaches were pumping their collective fists when they learned about the game time.

[Note most elite level Olympic athletes, who admittedly tend to compete less frequently that pro team athletes, will begin to adapt their training and sleeping schedules for any 2 hour+ time change, 3 to 4 weeks ahead of the competition.]

Mike Sando: I do think the kickoff time is potentially significant and I thank you for shining light on it. I would give the Cardinals less chance if the game kicked off at 11 a.m. MT.

John from Great Falls, Mont., writes: In my opinion Willis got jipped out of a first team All-Pro by Jon Beason. Sure, Jon Beason is good ... but Willis is outstanding and is quite possibly the best 49ers defender since Ronnie Lott. Willis was better in every statistical category except interceptions, and even then Willis returned his on interception for a touchdown! Also, the 49ers do not have the same amount of talent (especially on the defensive line) to keep Willis clean like Beason, who has the advantage of playing behind a line that includes Julius Peppers and Maake Kameaoutu, and so usually Beason is allowed to run free.

Willis, on the other hand, still routinely makes plays all over the field even when routinely having to fight off blockers. Willis also makes way more plays behind the LOS (7 tfl, 1 sack) while Beason does not. So, bottom line: Do you think Willis should have beaten out Beason for the 1st Team All Pro? Or not. I'm just curious about what you think (honestly, I was really hoping that Willis would be the first 49ers defender to make two pro-bowls and two first team all-pros in his first two seasons). Btw, love your blog.

Mike Sando: Thanks, John. I think the Panthers' team success helped put Beason over the top, more than anything Willis or Beason did differently this season. Both are very good young players. One of them enjoyed much more team success. I really think that was the difference.

(Read full post)

Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas

We've noted this trend before, but it's worth repeating. Carolina running back DeAngelo Williams is at his best going up the middle or to the right.

That's kind of interesting because tackle Jordan Gross and guard Travelle Wharton, probably Carolina's two best linemen, play on the left side. Williams has been effective on that side, too.

But his success up the middle speaks volumes about the play of second-year center Ryan Kalil and rookie right tackle Jeff Otah (as well as right guard Keydrick Vincent, who was injured late in the year and probably will be replaced by Jeremy Bridges in Saturday's playoff game against Arizona).

Here's a breakdown of what happens when Williams has carried the ball in each direction:

DeAngelo Williams
  Left Middle Right
Attempts 86 104 83
Yards 381 599 535
Average 4.4 5.8 6.4
TD 5 5 8
First Downs 16 25 25
-- ESPN Stats & Information

Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas

For months now, Marty Hurney and John Fox have been getting credit for some of their big moves (their handling of the Steve Smith-Ken Lucas fight in training camp and the drafting of Jonathan Stewart and Jeff Otah), but those weren't the only key moves the Carolina general manager and coach have made.

 
 Kevin Terrell/Getty Images
 John Fox and the Panthers host the Cardinals Saturday night.

Time for a look at four other (some subtle, some pretty major) moves Fox and Hurney have made to put the Panthers where they're at:

1. They blew up the offensive line and made it better. Drafting Otah was only one in a series of moves the Panthers made as they ended up with new starters at each of the five positions. They started by trying to play to strengths -- putting Jordan Gross at left tackle and Travelle Wharton at left guard, the spots where they're most effective. They plugged in Otah at right tackle, cleared the way for second-year pro Ryan Kalil to take over at center and let Keydrick Vincent arise from a handful of candidates for the right guard spot. It's all worked out with Carolina having the most physical offensive line in franchise history.

2. They didn't try to overdo it when the defensive line blew up. Mike Rucker retired and Kris Jenkins wanted out of Charlotte more than the Panthers wanted to get rid of him. Fox and Hurney didn't panic as a defensive line once filled with big names dwindled down to Julius Peppers. They stuck with defensive tackles Maake Kemoeatu and Damione Lewis, who already on the roster and went out and signed end Tyler Brayton, who had been a bust in Oakland. Throw in second-year pro Charles Johnson and the Panthers found strength in numbers, instead of names. Of course, it also helped that Peppers bounced back from whatever slowed him last year.

3. They took a chance. Fox and Hurney are two of the most by-the-book guys in the NFL. That's why it was more than a little surprising when they burned a roster spot by keeping kickoff specialist Rhys Lloyd. But that's turned out to be an excellent move. Lloyd set a record (at least in the K-ball era) with 30 touchbacks.

4. They went for the sure thing. Faced with the annual rite of finding a receiver to complement Smith, the Panthers reached back into their past and signed Muhsin Muhammad. Deduct a point for also signing D.J. Hackett, who's been worthless, but give them at least two points for bringing back Muhammad. He's been a solid possession receiver and has brought a strong veteran presence to the locker room.

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