CHARLOTTE, N.C. – 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 today’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 61 years, the Cardinals venture to Bank of America Stadium – where Carolina went 8-0 during the regular season – 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 – and that was only a first-round win,” Cardinals receiver Larry Fitzgerald said of the 30-24 victory over Atlanta 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, (but) 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 today, when 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.
Quarterback Jake Delhomme hopes to add to his impressive playoff résumé 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.”
Expect Carolina to try to quickly establish its potent ground game to keep 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 on offense, scoring at least 28 points in the past seven games. But the Cardinals held Atlanta’s Michael Turner to 42 yards rushing last week.
Hoping to improve their chances 2,100 miles from home, coach Ken Whisenhunt decided to have the team fly to Charlotte on Friday instead of the customary two days before the game.
Whisenhunt didn’t want his players sitting around for the better part of two days with today’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.
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