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Fortunes of Cards, Panthers have changed greatly since playoff game


Larry Fitzgerald hauls in a pass during the Cardinals' playoff win in Carolina two seasons ago.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – On a not-so-chilly night at Bank of America Stadium – the last time the Cardinals came here, in fact – they did the improbable.

That playoff win set the Cards up for their memorable Super Bowl run. It also sent the Panthers into a tailspin they have yet to emerge from. And Sunday, the teams meet again in Carolina nowhere close to where they were on that evening in January, 2009.

"It's the NFL," wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald said. "Things change quickly in this business."

The Cardinals are 4-9, trying to string together back-to-back victories for the first time since last season. The Panthers (1-12) are finishing up for a coach who won't return and waiting to see if they get the No. 1 overall draft pick.

The echoes of that long-ago playoff game linger, but only to a point.

"Obviously that was a big day for us, a big game," Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt said. "The significance of it, when you look back on it, made a big difference for us. That is a big part of the reason we continued to go on and have success. But that doesn't mean anything here. They are different teams, different situations."

That doesn't mean that Whisnehunt doesn't have some affection for the place and won't feel something special when he walks in the building. He said he had feelings when the Cards played at Detroit's Ford Field last season, since it was the first time he had returned there since he had been there winning a Super Bowl as a Steelers' assistant coach.

The Panthers opened that playoff game with a painfully easy touchdown drive but the Cards dominated from there, forcing six turnovers en route to an easy 33-13 win and a trip to the NFC Championship game.

"I honestly thought that was how the whole game was going to go," Panthers tackle Jordan Gross said of the first Carolina TD. "The rest is history. It's definitely been a bit of a struggle since then."

The Panthers have shuffled through three starting quarterbacks this season – including Cardinals castoff Brian St. Pierre for a game – and are using rookie Jimmy Clausen. They have been slammed with injury (14 players on injured reserve) and coach John Fox won't be back in 2011.

The Cards, however, remain underdogs. And despite having a superior team last season when the teams met in Arizona, the Cards melted down themselves in a bad loss with six of their own turnovers.

The Cardinals aren't as good this season, but they are coming off their most convincing victory of the year.

"In the fourth quarter last week me and coach Whiz looked at each other and it was like, 'Why couldn't we do this all year,' " safety Kerry Rhodes said. "But you can't look at what you have done in the past, you have to look ahead."

That's why peeking back at that playoff win is interesting for only so long.

"You never know what you are going to get in an NFL season," center Lyle Sendlein said. "We thought we were going to be on the top of our division and I am sure they thought the same. It just goes to show how hard it is to win games consistently."

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