NFL: Panthers at home tonight in playoffs
By Mike Cranston
CHARLOTTE ó The Arizona Cardinals spent the week devising ways to slow dynamic running back DeAngelo Williams, speedy receiver Steve Smith and disruptive defensive end Julius Peppers.
But perhaps the biggest obstacle the Cardinals face in tonight’s NFC divisional playoff game against the Carolina Panthers is not player matchups, but location.
They’re returning to that dreaded place on the map, the abyss of the franchise for years: the Eastern time zone.
The Cardinals are 0-5 in the East this year and 2-19 since 2003. It’s where their defense turns to mush, mistakes pile up and they play the role of homecoming opponent.
A week after winning their first home playoff game in 51 years, the Cardinals venture to Bank of America Stadium ó where Carolina went 8-0 during the regular season ó to try to end their road hex and win consecutive playoff games for the first time in franchise history.
“That jubilation that you felt after that win last week, I mean it’s indescribable ó and that was only a first-round win,” Cardinals receiver Larry Fitzgerald said of the 30-24 victory over the Falcons in front of the Arizona fans. “I can’t imagine winning this game or to win the Super Bowl, I just can’t imagine how intense that would feel.”
Despite their West Coast bias, the Cardinals (10-7) say they’re confident heading to Charlotte. Unlike that ugly 56-35 loss at the New York Jets, the 48-20 meltdown at Philadelphia and the 47-7 embarrassment in the snow at New England, the Cardinals came close to winning here in October.
Behind Kurt Warner and his band of dominant receivers, Arizona led 17-3 in the third quarter. But then came the miscues. Turnovers, missed tackles and Smith’s 65-yard touchdown catch put Carolina ahead to stay in a 27-23 win despite Warner’s 381 yards passing.
“We were able to move the ball up and down the field, kind of shot ourselves in the foot with turnovers in the red zone,” said receiver Anquan Boldin, who had two touchdown catches. “But other than that, I think we did what we wanted to.”
Arizona won’t know if Boldin will play until he tests his strained left hamstring before the game Saturday, where rain is in the forecast and the Panthers (12-4) enter as a 10-point favorite in their first home playoff game in five years.
“Guys are focused, and they realize what’s at stake,” Panthers safety Chris Harris said. “We’ve got enough older guys who know they might not ever get this opportunity again.”
One of those old guys celebrates his birthday Saturday. Jake Delhomme turns 34 and hopes to add to his impressive playoff resume against Warner, his former NFL Europe teammate and a friend.
Delhomme is 5-2 in the playoffs and his 95.0 playoff passer rating is better than any other quarterback in this year’s postseason. Delhomme is also 4-0 against Arizona and the Panthers have beaten the Cardinals five straight times.
Delhomme’s successful return from reconstructive elbow surgery has coincided with Carolina’s turnaround after consecutive seasons out of the playoffs.
“We have a few of us here who have been to the Super Bowl, who have been to the (NFC) championship game,” Delhomme said. “You treasure winning 12 games in a season. That just doesn’t happen. We’ve got guys that have been there and we’ve let the other ones know that you need to make the most of it.”
Expect Carolina to try to quickly establish its potent ground game to keep the rejuvenated Warner and his dynamic receivers off the field. Williams, who set a team record with 1,515 yards rushing and led the league with 18 touchdowns rushing, went for 108 yards and a score in the first meeting with Arizona.
The Panthers have been dominant offensively, scoring at least 28 points in the past seven games. But the Cardinals held Atlanta’s Michael Turner to 42 yards rushing last week.
“They can stop the run and they can stop the pass. They did both last week,” Williams said. “So we’re not taking them lightly. We respect them to the utmost.”
Williams should be helped by the return of right tackle Jeff Otah, sidelined in the second half of the regular-season finale with a toe injury.
Carolina’s starting defensive tackles Maake Kemoeatu (ankle) and Damione Lewis (ankle) are also back, while the Panthers hope Peppers can harass Warner and prevent another quarterback from having a big game against Carolina’s secondary. Drew Brees of New Orleans threw for 386 yards two weeks ago.
That chance of rain, with the temperature dipping into the 40s, won’t help the pass-happy Cardinals, who have struggled in bad elements ó and good weather ó when they come East.
Hoping to improve their chances 2,100 miles from home, Whisenhunt decided to have the team fly to Charlotte on Friday instead of the customary two days before the game.
Whisenhunt, who kept the team on the road between consecutive games at Washington and New York only to get blown out by the Jets, didn’t want his players sitting around for the better part of two days with Saturday’s game starting at 8:15 p.m. local time.
Might as well try anything when you’ve been outscored 202-102 in five games in the Eastern time zone.
“We know it’s going to be difficult coming into Carolina just as it was difficult for Atlanta to come into our home stadium,” Whisenhunt said. “Hopefully that will help prepare us to come out and play well.”
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