NFL: Panthers-Cardinals is unlikely showdown
By Mike Cranston
CHARLOTTE ó Carolina and Arizona used to be two of the more desirable places for NFL teams to visit.
No need to practice with pumped-in noise before these trips. No silent snap counts required here. Instead, opposing players would see and hear thousands of transplanted fans rooting for them, and more often than not leave with a road victory.
Sure, the opposing jerseys still litter the stands, but the home fans have drowned out their noise. The Panthers (5-2) and Cardinals (4-2) have become contenders by going a combined 7-0 at home this season, giving host Carolina the edge as the two teams meet today in an unlikely showdown of NFC division leaders positioning themselves to end playoff droughts.
The Panthers, in their 14th season, and the Cardinals, who moved to Arizona from St. Louis 20 years ago, know that consistent winning will help win over fans who brought their old allegiances when they moved to the growing, sun-drenched cities of Charlotte and Phoenix.
“I think it’s important that we’re kind of establishing, much like what they face in Carolina, getting a number of transplanted fans behind us,” Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt said.
The NFC West-leading Cardinals, who haven’t reached the playoffs since 1998, were off last week following a thrilling 30-24 home win over Dallas on Oct. 12. After blowing a late lead, Arizona became the first NFL team to win a regular-season overtime game on a blocked punt returned for a touchdown, improving to 3-0 at home.
“We’ve been very good in our new building,” said quarterback Kurt Warner, who ranks third in the NFL with a 102.8 passer rating. “I don’t think you can overstate enough what a home-field advantage means to a football team. We’re excited that we’re developing one here in Arizona.”
With receiver Anquan Boldin hoping to return today, three weeks after surgery to repair facial fractures, Warner would have another option in an offense that’s averaging an NFL-best 29.5 points per game.
Trouble is, Arizona carries a 1-2 road mark to Carolina, which is no longer the place visiting teams go to get well.
Remarkably, coach John Fox entered the season with a better road record (27-21) than home mark (24-24) in his six seasons with Carolina and had lost four straight home openers. Last year the Panthers went 2-6 at home in a miserable 7-9 season played mostly without quarterback Jake Delhomme.
This year, Bank of America Stadium is suddenly an intimidating place. Buoyed by Delhomme’s return from elbow surgery and a dominant defense, Carolina is 4-0 at home, winning the last three by a combined 88-16.
The Panthers enter the weekend tied with Tampa Bay for the NFC South lead as they try to end a two-year absence from the postseason.
And for Delhomme, it’s a new feeling after home games, not having to try to avoid family and friends. Even when the Panthers reached the NFC championship game in 2005, they were better on the road (6-2) than at home (5-3).
“We are playing better football, and we are a more rounded team. That is the big thing,” Delhomme said. “But certainly it has been nice. We have played some decent football at home, and certainly the support has been outstanding. ”
In other games today, San Diego takes on New Orleans in London; Buffalo is at Miami; Washington at Detroit; Tampa Bay at Dallas; Oakland at Baltimore; Kansas City at the New York Jets; St. Louis at New England; New York Giants at Pittsburgh; Atlanta at Philadelphia; Cincinnati at Houston; Cleveland at Jacksonville; and Seattle at San Francisco.
Indianapolis is at Tennessee on Monday night.
Denver, Chicago, Green Bay and Minnesota are off. There is no Sunday night game this week.