The Panthers look to improve to 9-0 at home by beating the Cardinals in Charlotte for the second time this season as the teams square off Saturday night for the chance to advance to the NFC championship game.
Carolina tied for the best regular-season record in the NFC at 12-4, thanks in large part to its first undefeated record at home since 1996. The Panthers won their eight games at Bank of America Stadium by an average of 15.4 points.
The Cardinals, meanwhile, went 0-5 in the East, losing to Washington, the New York Jets, Carolina, Philadelphia and New England by an average of 20.0 points. They are 2-20 in their last 22 games in the Eastern time zone.
The closest the Cardinals (10-7) came to a victory along the East Coast was their 27-23 loss to the Panthers on Oct. 26. Trailing 24-23 in the fourth quarter, Arizona drove to the Carolina 15-yard line before Kurt Warner’s pass was intercepted by Pro Bowl linebacker Jon Beason. The Cardinals led 17-3 early in the third quarter of that game.
Warner threw for 381 yards, the most allowed by the Panthers until they gave up 386 to New Orleans’ Drew Brees in their regular-season finale.
“We had good coverage, but those receivers are big and strong,” Beason said of the Panthers’ first meeting with the Cardinals.
The much-maligned Carolina secondary will again have its hands full Saturday. Arizona was second in the league with 292.1 passing yards per game and third with 31 touchdowns in the air thanks to a comeback year for the 37-year-old Warner and a dynamic receiving corps of Larry Fitzgerald, Anquan Boldin and Steve Breaston.
Though they don’t expect stopping Arizona to be easy, Carolina defenders think they’ll rise to the challenge.
“We’ve won in every way imaginable this year, so we feel very confident going into the playoffs,” safety Chris Harris said.
The Cardinals have to be feeling pretty good as well after beating Atlanta 30-24 in a wild-card game last Saturday, an upset victory for an Arizona team that won the weak NFC West.
“A lot of people coming into this game said we were the worst playoff team ever to get in,” coach Ken Whisenhunt said. “… I think we rallied around that.”
Warner, in the playoffs for the first time since leading St. Louis to a second Super Bowl in 2001, was 19-of-32 - 13-for-17 in the second half - for 271 yards, two touchdowns and one interception.
“I hope this gives us a lot of confidence,” Warner said. “I knew we thought we could win this game. Hopefully we can parlay this into some more confidence and know we can win wherever we have to go.”
The Panthers had last week off thanks to John Kasay’s last-second, game-winning field goal against the Saints on Dec. 28 that secured the No. 2 seed for Carolina.
“Guys don’t feel as tired and they don’t hurt as bad and there’s a home game,” Kasay said. “There are a lot of things that ripple out of that kick.”
Panthers quarterback Jake Delhomme helped put Kasay in position for that crucial kick by engineering his fourth game-winning drive with less than four minutes remaining of the season.
Delhomme, who turns 34 Saturday, is 54-32 as a starter in six seasons with the Panthers, including 5-2 in the playoffs. He’s engineered 13 winning drives in the final two minutes of regulation and overtime, and his 95.0 passer rating in the postseason is better than any other quarterback still alive in this year’s playoffs.
“You’ve seen a difference between last year and this year, having him and not having him,” said left tackle Jordan Gross, who endured a 7-9 season with Delhomme sidelined for most of 2007. “He’s definitely our leader and the whole team revolves around him.”
Williams finished third in the league with 1,515 rushing yards and first with 18 touchdowns - 16 in his last nine games. Stewart, a first-round pick out of Oregon, added 836 yards and 10 TDs.
Arizona’s running game wasn’t nearly as strong in 2008, but Edgerrin James - benched midway through the season before returning as the Cardinals’ lead back in the final regular-season game - outgained Atlanta’s Michael Turner last Saturday, rushing for 73 yards on 16 attempts.
James has been frustrated with his role and vowed that this will be his last season with the Cardinals, but still expects good things to happen this postseason.
“We have so much potential on this team, so why not go out and live up to our potential?” he said.
James could be particularly important for Arizona with Boldin nursing a strained left hamstring he suffered in last week’s victory. Boldin, who had 89 catches for 1,038 yards and 11 touchdowns in 12 games this season, is undergoing treatment but doesn’t plan to test the hamstring before gametime.
“Still tight,” Boldin said Wednesday. “I’m not sure at this point. I’m just taking it a day at a time, trying to do what I can to get it better.
“I’m just trying to lay off it right now,” he added. “Just rest it. Do enough to get me going but not to aggravate it.”