On Saturday night, the Carolina Panthers will host a playoff game for the third time in their 13-year history. With the Arizona Cardinals making the trip to Bank of America Stadium, it will mark the first that the Dallas Cowboys have not been a part of.
The Panthers wrapped up the No. 2 seed in the NFC in the last week of the regular season with their division-clinching win over New Orleans and earned the right to take a week off while the Cardinals played last weekend at home against Atlanta.
The Cardinals wrapped up their NFC West division title early in the year, and it looked as though they were stumbling to the finish line and would make an early exit in the playoffs. Arizona lost four of its last six games, with the two wins coming against lowly division opponents St. Louis and Seattle.
Arizona looked like a completely different team last Saturday, though, as a lot of their weaknesses seemed to, at least for the time being, shore up. The much-maligned Cardinals defense held the Falcons in check, making Matt Ryan look like an actual rookie and holding Michael Turner to under 50 yards.
Kurt Warner found his top two receivers, Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin, for touchdown passes and managed the game well, mixing in the run for the first time in as long as I can remember.
The Cardinals rushed for a total of 86 yards on Saturday, with Edgerrin James picking up 73 of them. It has been believed for some time that James will not return to Arizona next season as he is frustrated by the absence of a running game in the Cardinals’ offense.
On defense, the Cardinals kept the Falcons guessing by changing up their look on the defensive line several times, and the crowd noise inside University of Phoenix Stadium forced the Falcons to run on the same snap count all night, allowing a consistent rush right off the ball.
All of the factors and conditions that led to the positive results last week will be subtracted from the Cardinals’ game plan for Saturday night as they will be exposed to the wacky weather of an east coast winter.
The Cardinals don’t need any weather forecasts to tell them their fortunes of late when heading east. In five trips to the right coast this season, the Cardinals were 0-5. Since 2003, Arizona is 2-19 when coming east.
The weather on Saturday night is predicted to be in the high 40s or low 50s with a 40 percent chance of rain showers and 11 mph winds. They will be playing in Bank Of America Stadium, where they lost in Week Eight and where the Panthers have not lost since Dec. 22, 2007.
Did I forget to mention that the Panthers have never lost a home playoff game?
With all of these factors stacking up against the Cardinals, there is a general consensus from the national media that there is no hope. Cardinals’ players are feeling the pressure from that opinion and have taken on an “us against the world” mentality heading into these playoffs.
It has worked once, at home, but will it work again in the great outdoors? Let’s take a look.
The Panthers and the Cardinals met in Week Eight as the Panthers were heading into their bye week. Kurt Warner had the offense rolling and Anquan Boldin made his first appearance after having his face shattered in the Jets game earlier in the year.
The Panthers were still trying to find a solid identity and this game would go a long way in revealing that identity to the football world.
Jake Delhomme had one of his best statistical days of the season on that afternoon, completing 20 of 28 passes for 248 yards and two touchdowns to beat his mentor, Warner.
Both touchdown passes were to Steve Smith, who finished with five catches for 117 yards and the two scores—one of them being the infamous "tip toe touchdown," where Smith caught the ball on the sideline and acrobatically twisted and tip toed his way past a few Cardinals’ defenders on his way to a 65-yard score.
The most important thing for the Panthers in the long run to come from that game was the definite emergence of DeAngelo Williams. Williams had 123 yards three weeks prior in a win against Kansas City, but was held to under 100 total yards over his next two contests—against formidable opponents in Tampa Bay and New Orleans.
He finished with 108 yards and a touchdown against Arizona and started a stretch in which he would finish with 100+ yards in seven of the Panthers final nine games. He also scored a touchdown in every game for the remainder of the season except the season finale in New Orleans.
It is the rushing attack that has brought the Panthers to where they sit today as the number two seed in the conference. It was that afternoon that the Panthers truly found their ace in the hole on the ground.
Warner did what he did to most defenses he faced this year—whatever he wanted. Warner finished with 381 yards passing and two touchdowns to go along with a crucial interception late in the game that sealed it for the Panthers.
Even after a win, it was alarming to see what kind of damage Warner did to the secondary of the Panthers. He would not be the last quarterback to expose the Panthers' defensive backs, but he was the first to really exploit the weaknesses that lie in that area for Carolina.
That brings us to the key matchup on Saturday—Warner versus the Carolina secondary. The Panthers shouldn’t have much trouble running the ball on Arizona. While the Cardinals did stop Michael Turner last week, they will have a harder task in stopping the duo of Williams and Jonathan Stewart, outdoors, in the cold, and on the road.
Warner will have to be the one to keep the Cardinals in the game if that’s where they intend to stay. Warner completed 35 of 49 passes in his last visit to Charlotte, finding three receivers seven times of more (Fitzgerald, Boldin, Steve Breaston).
The pressure will be on the Cardinals offense to match the intensity and effectiveness of the Panthers offense and the way they have been playing recently.
If Warner can manage to do that and the Cardinals defense can step up despite all of the disadvantages they are faced with, we should have a much closer ball game on our hands than the average critic will predict.
However, it is a known fact that the Carolina Panthers are a playoff team. It is a known fact that Jake Delhomme is a playoff quarterback, and it is a known fact that John Fox is a playoff coach.
There is something about this team that digs deeper and finds ways to win in the postseason when it counts the most. Delhomme is 5-2 in the playoffs and has one of the best postseason quarterback ratings of all time. The Panthers have never come up short of the conference championship game when they make the playoffs, losing in that game in the 1996 and 2005 seasons.
In 2003, after winning the wild-card game at home against the Cowboys, the Panthers beat a St. Louis Rams team on the road that was then known as the “Greatest Show on Turf” in double overtime, then went to Philadelphia and knocked off the heavily favored Eagles 14-3 to claim the NFC Championship.
They would go on to play the New England Patriots at the peak of their dynasty, as Super Bowl XXXVIII turned out to be one of the greatest ever played. The Panthers hung with the Patriots and had a chance to force overtime when a kickoff found its’ way out of bounds and then-Patriots kicker Adam Vinatieri, with ice water in his veins, drilled the game-winning field goal to capture another title for New England.
There are eight Panthers on the current roster that experienced 2005’s NFC Championship loss in Seattle. Anybody close to the team will tell you that the injuries the Panthers sustained on the road to Seattle and the atmosphere on that night combined to seal the Panthers fate as they lost, 34-14.
With that being said, there are players within this team who know what it feels like to experience success in the playoffs, but there are also a number of players who know what it feels like to lose in the playoffs as well.
All in all, there are 24 players on the Panthers’ current roster who have combined for a total of 135 playoff games. That experience will no doubt help the team as the atmosphere changes and the younger players realize that this isn’t the regular season anymore.
That experience will also help when the going gets tough, because those players know what it feels like to come up empty.
The Panthers have been successful in the playoffs before, but that was then. This is now. Believe in now.