Cardinals-Panthers: Arizona Forces Six Turnovers, Advances to NFC Championship

Matthew GilmartinSenior Analyst IJanuary 11, 2009

Complete disbelief is the feeling gripping Panthers nation today after suffering a 33-13 home blowout at the hands of the Arizona Cardinals in an NFC divisional playoff game last night. 

The Cardinals forced six turnovers—five interceptions, one fumble—and scored 23 points off of them. 

Only one of them was truly forced, though. Early in the first quarter, Arizona DE Antonio Smith used one of his tentacle-like arms to reach around his blocker and wildly swat the ball out Delhomme's right hand, in which the ball was very loosely secured as he waited for a receiver, presumably Steve Smith on a streak route, to get open.

Smith quickly fell on the loose change, and when the pile was broken up, the Cardinals had the ball on the Panthers' 13. They took the lead for good two plays later. 

Any time you can look back on a game and say that the final lead change took place before the first quarter ended, you have a really lopsided game.

Boy, was it ever one-sided.

Delhomme's five interceptions were the most he had ever thrown in a game in his career. 

I must admit that when I was researching my preview of this game, and I was thinking about how Delhomme had been brandished as a type of gunslinger who forced the ball into bad locations instead of throwing it away, I thought back to the Oakland game immediately following the midseason bye week when he threw four picks. 

I had a nasty feeling in the back of my mind that that would be the kind of game Delhomme had.  I didn't realize it then in the hype leading up to the game, but now I see what was going on.

Delhomme wasn't even always trying to make an impossible throw in a vain attempt to get WR Steve Smith the ball. As a matter of fact, there was only one interception I remember where he was clearly trying to get the ball to Smith.

But there were three, maybe four defenders surrounding Smith. It was a hopeless endeavor trying to get Smith the ball, and he still tried.

As good of a playmaker as Smith is, even he couldn't shake free of three and four-defender coverages against him. Delhomme also tried to find Muhammad countless times because it was obvious that Smith was covered and then some. But he couldn't get any resemblance of a rapport established with him, either. 

If your starting quarterback throws five interceptions while completing only half of his passes and throwing one late touchdown pass well after the game proverbial game is over, you're simply not going to win in the postseason. And if you're playing a team whose offense is as good as the Cardinals' is, you're going to get blown out. And that's what happened.

Speaking of Arizona's offense, Larry Fitzgerald is an absolute stud. You don't really understand just how good he is until he see him play one of his better games. Fitzgerald, who caught eight passes for 166 yards and a touchdown, could have beaten the Panthers single-handedly if he'd gotten the chance. 

Kurt Warner, whom I praised highly as a very accurate passer with an insanely quick release in my preview, really didn't do much or have a particularly good game. He went 21-of-32 for 220 yards, two touchdowns, and one interception. 

Warner completed about 66 percent of his passes, but most of the passes he completed were to wide-open receivers. The two touchdowns he threw were byproducts of Fitzgerald's efforts, and his interception was the result of an ineffective pass fake and subsequent pass thrown into heavy coverage.

The Cardinals not only got production in the passing game from Fitzgerald, but Warner also spread the ball around so well that it was nearly impossible to defend against his throws. Eight different receivers had at least one catch.

Arizona's offense wasn't confined to the air, though, for the second consecutive playoff game. Tim Hightower and Edgerrin James each played much better than they did in the teams' previous meeting in Week Eight and combined for 133 yards and a touchdown on 37 carries. JJ Arrington even chipped in with 11 yards on just two measly carries.

Much to everyone's surprise, the Panthers' ground game was highly inferior to the Cards'. DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart—"Double Trouble" combined for 75 yards on 15 carries but no touchdowns. 

That comes to a healthy 5.0 yards per carry average, but approximately 40 of those yards came on two runs in a row on the Panthers' first possession of the game. Thirty-five yards on 13 carries (2.70 yards per carry) is a better measuring stick for how the Panthers really did with running the ball. 

With the exception of Williams' early 31-yard run and Stewart's nine-yard touchdown run, the Cardinals were like the Minnesota Vikings in shutting down Carolina's perhaps overhyped running game.

Give credit to the Cardinals' defense for the Panthers' struggles running the ball.  Arizona's defensive linemen and linebackers routinely penetrated the run-blocking very quickly. 

Carolina's offensive line almost never got a good push on the Cards' defensive line. It didn't open many holes for Williams and Stewart, either.  Of if there was a hole open, it got filled exceedingly quickly by a bloodthirsty Cardinals defender eager to make a crunching tackle one way or another.

But the funny thing about Arizona's offense is that it didn't completely subjugate the Panthers' defense all throughout the game. It didn't score touchdown after touchdown after touchdown—the Cardinals were actually forced into kicking four field goals. Arizona placekicker Neil Rackers even missed a 53-yard attempt.

And yet it still didn't make a difference. Coordinator Clancy Pendergast's defense was like a pack of rabid wolves. It just couldn't be stopped, and there was nothing the Panthers could do about it. Pendergast was ready for everything and called plays so effectively it was almost like he was inside the Panthers' offensive huddle.   

The old issue of time of possession reared its ugly head again for the Panthers. The Cats had the ball for 20 minutes, 11 seconds of a 60-minute game. That's pathetic with a capital "p". The Cardinals had the ball for an astounding 39 minutes, 49 seconds. 

The Panthers ran 60 offensive plays. But that counts punts and a failed two-point conversion and fourth-down conversion in addition to plays blown dead right after the snap due to a penalty being called. 

The Cardinals ran 89, counting field goals and plays on which a penalty occurred. No wonder if felt like the Cardinals were on the field for the whole game—they ran an unrealistic 60 percent of the plays. And it could have been many more had they not made a lot of big plays.

While there are no defensive players who need to be recognized for exceptional play, Cardinals DC Clancy Pendergast does need to be recognized. He managed to get his defense to retain every bit of the drive they played with in the Wild Card Round, and he called as good of a game as you're going to see.

Also—kudos to the entire Cardinals' defense for forcing six turnovers and keeping the Panthers' offense out of the rhythm for the entire game.

Congratulations, Cardinals. That's why you're going to the NFC Championship—your defense. Good luck against the Giants/Eagles winner.  But I don't think you'll need it. As a matter of fact, I think you can win the Super Bowl if you stay on your hot streak. Why not you guys?

The Panthers put every weakness they have on full display for the whole NFL to see in the biggest home game in franchise history. Blown coverage assignments, penalty issues, Delhomme forcing throws, turnovers, no offensive rhythm, missing tackles and running right by the ball carrier. That's choking if I ever saw it.

It's as simple as that—the Panthers choked and panicked. The Cardinals took advantage.

And now the Panthers will be sitting on their couches watching the rest of the playoffs from their living rooms witnessing someone else's dreams come true and knowing that if they had done this differently, or that better, it could have been them lifting the Lombardi Trophy over their heads at the culmination of Super Bowl Sunday. Damn "what if's". 

And the Cardinals are going on.


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