CHARLOTTE, N.C. – The Arizona Cardinals were expected by most to be easy prey in another futile trip to the East Coast.
Instead, Kurt Warner has the Cardinals within a victory of their first Super Bowl appearance – with a big assist from Jake Delhomme and the bumbling Carolina Panthers.
The once-discarded Warner was steady in a 33-13 rout of the Panthers on Saturday night, throwing two touchdown passes, while Delhomme threw five interceptions and lost a fumble.
The target of jokes for years with their history of ineptitude, the Cardinals became the last NFC team to reach the conference championship since the 1970 merger with a win few saw coming.
Entering as a 10-point underdog and ridiculed for their 0-5 record in the Eastern time zone this season, Arizona (11-7) raced to a 27-7 halftime lead and cruised past the mistake-prone Panthers (12-5), who were the league’s only unbeaten team at home in the regular season.
“It’s a group of guys that put their mind to going out and playing great football,” Warner said. “Everybody that needed to step up, stepped up. Everybody that needed to make a play, made a play and that’s what it’s all about.”
They got plenty of help from Delhomme, who turned in a brutal performance on his 34th birthday. Just one shy of the NFL playoff record for interceptions, Delhomme became the first player to have five picks in the playoffs since Oakland’s Rich Gannon in the 2003 Super Bowl against Tampa Bay.
He completed only 17 of 34 passes for 205 yards and one touchdown. His woes made Steve Smith a non-factor. The Pro Bowl receiver didn’t have his first catch until the final minute of the third quarter.
“I’m at a loss for words,” Delhomme said. “Usually I’m not. For one reason or another, I didn’t give us a chance tonight.”
Smith caught a meaningless 8-yard touchdown pass from Delhomme with 50 seconds left, when the Cardinals had already begun looking forward to either visiting the New York Giants or hosting Philadelphia next Sunday.
“I’m putting on my Philly hat right now,” said Larry Fitzgerald, who had eight catches for 166 yards. “We would love to have a home game.”
Arizona had been embarrassed when it ventured far from home, but the closest it came was a 27-23 loss here in October.
There would be no suspense this time.
While Pro Bowl receiver Anquan Boldin (hamstring) sat out, Fitzgerald more than made up for the loss. The 6-foot-3 receiver set a team playoff record for yards receiving while shredding the Panthers’ secondary.
The Cardinals’ defense stopped Carolina’s potent running game, too. A week after shutting down Atlanta’s Michael Turner, DeAngelo Williams was held to 63 yards in a crushing loss for the Panthers, the No. 2 seed in the NFC who had visions of reaching their third NFC title game in six years.
But Delhomme threw two interceptions and lost a fumble in the first half, making poor reads, holding the ball too long and giving the Cardinals great field position.
Defensive end Antonio Smith stripped Delhomme and recovered the ball at the Carolina 13 late in the first quarter. Two plays later Edgerrin James’ 4-yard touchdown put the Cardinals ahead to stay 14-7.
Next possession, rookie Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie picked off Delhomme at the goal line, leading to the first of four field goals by Neil Rackers.
Delhomme started hearing boos when he was intercepted by Gerald Hayes midway through the second quarter. Warner turned that into another touchdown, finding a streaking Fitzgerald for a 29-yard pass for a stunning 27-7 halftime lead that silenced the once towel-waving crowd.
“We didn’t do anything, and you know before you go on the field that if you don’t play well, you are going home,” said Panthers defensive end Julius Peppers, an unrestricted free agent.
Cardinals 33, Panthers 13
Car—Stewart 9 run (Kasay kick)
Ari—Hightower 3 pass from Warner (Rackers kick)
Ari—James 4 run (Rackers kick)
Ari—FG Rackers 49
Ari—FG Rackers 30
Ari—Fitzgerald 29 pass from Warner (Rackers kick)
Ari—FG Rackers 33
Ari—FG Rackers 20
Car—S.Smith 8 pass from Delhomme (pass failed)
|Total Net Yards||360||269|
|Time of Possession||39:49||20:11|
RUSHING—Arizona, Hightower 17-76, James 20-57, Arrington 2-11, Warner 3-1, T.Smith 1-0. Carolina, Williams 12-63, Stewart 3-12.
PASSING—Arizona, Warner 21-32-1-220. Carolina, Delhomme 17-34-5-205.
RECEIVING—Arizona, Fitzgerald 8-166, Breaston 4-28, Arrington 3-10, Urban 2-5, James 1-9, Castille 1-3, Hightower 1-3, Doucet 1-(minus 4). Carolina, Muhammad 5-55, Stewart 3-39, Rosario 3-28, S.Smith 2-43, Jarrett 2-27, Hoover 1-7, Williams 1-6.
Subscribe to the sports newsletter
Get the day’s top sports headlines and breaking news delivered to your inbox by subscribing here.