NFL Playoffs: Cardinals 33, Panthers 13
By Bret Strelow
CHARLOTTE ó Jake Delhomme unbuckled his chin strap and covered his face with two hands as he walked off the field following a third-quarter interception.
He spent portions of the final quarter apologizing to teammates in the huddle.
Delhomme threw a career-high five picks and lost a fumble as the Carolina Panthers suffered a 33-13 loss to the Arizona Cardinals in an NFC divisional playoff game Saturday night at Bank of America Stadium.
Carolina, the only NFL team to go unbeaten at home, allowed Arizona to win in the Eastern time zone for the first time in six tries this season and only the third time in 22 attempts since 2003.
“For the people that say it was ugly,” Panthers wide receiver Steve Smith said, “you needed to be on the field to see how ugly it actually was.”
Kurt Warner threw for 220 yards and two touchdowns to lead the Cardinals, who will face either the New York Giants or the Philadelphia Eagles in the NFC title game. Arizona receiver Larry Fitzgerald finished with eight catches for 166 yards, including 151 in the first half.
Delhomme, who fired a TD pass to Smith in the final minute to raise his quarterback rating to 39.1, accepted blame for the embarrassingly one-sided loss.
He relayed a similar message to fellow offensive players as he spoke on the field in the closing minutes.
“I was apologetic,” said Delhomme, who turned 34 on Saturday. “I’m not looking for sympathy one bit. That’s the last thing I want. I just wanted to let them know the work I put in this week obviously wasn’t good enough.”
The Panthers (12-5) started the game with a five-play, 50-yard march and jumped ahead on Jonathan Stewart’s 9-yard touchdown run.
Arizona (11-7) pulled even on Tim Hightower’s 3-yard TD reception with 2:43 remaining in the opening quarter. The play capped the first of five consecutive scoring drives by the Cardinals, who turned three first-half turnovers from Delhomme into 17 points.
Carolina registered two first downs on its next eight possessions after Stewart’s touchdown. Smith, who didn’t catch a pass until the last minute of the third quarter, wound up with two receptions and was the target on three of Delhomme’s interceptions.
“In a nut shell, we picked a bad day to have a bad day,” Panthers coach John Fox said. “I think any time you turn the ball over six times against a good football team in the playoff level, you don’t have much of a shot. It’s unfortunate because those guys in the locker room worked their tails off all year. I wish it could have been a better finish.”
Arizona took the lead for good 56 seconds after tying the game.
Defensive end Antonio Smith forced a fumble and recovered it at Carolina’s 13 on a first-down sack of Delhomme. Edgerrin James raced into the end zone two plays later.
The Panthers advanced to Arizona’s 14 on their next series, but Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie intercepted a pass at the goal line. Neil Rackers made a 49-yard field goal, and he added a 30-yard kick with 5:28 remaining in the first half.
“I give Carolina all the credit,” Cardinals defensive tackle Darnell Dockett said. “They had big holes in the running game. Their running backs were just running in the wrong holes. Their quarterback was throwing to the wrong guys that were open.”
Carolina, which overcame a 14-point deficit in the second half of its home victory against Arizona in late October, continued to struggle after falling behind 20-7.
Linebacker Gerald Hayes made an interception at midfield on the first play of the Panthers’ next drive, and Warner found Fitzgerald for a 29-yard touchdown.
Carolina linebacker Jon Beason gave the home crowd some hope by intercepting Warner in Arizona territory six minutes into the third quarter, but Antrel Rolle picked off a deflected pass intended for Smith and gained 47 yards on a return to the Panthers’ 26.
The third of four field goals from Rackers established a 30-7 margin heading into the final period.
“To think I’d come out and put us in a bind the way I did tonight, you don’t think about things like that,” Delhomme said. “I’m at a loss for words, and usually I’m not. For one reason or another, I didn’t give us a chance tonight.”