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Cardinals Hammer Panthers, Head To NFC Championship

Defense forces six turnovers in stunning 33-13 victory at Carolina

Wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald hauls in a 41-yard pass that jump-started the Cards' offense during Saturday night's 33-13 playoff win in Carolina.
Wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald hauls in a 41-yard pass that jump-started the Cards' offense during Saturday night's 33-13 playoff win in Carolina.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Edgerrin James grinned at Anquan Boldin and raised his left hand, pointing at the "Q" written on the tape around his wrist.

"I told you you were going to play again," James yelled to his injured teammate, as the clock wound down on the Cardinals' dominating 33-13 Divisional playoff win over Carolina at Bank of America Stadium Saturday night.

Indeed, Boldin – sitting out with a bad hamstring – gets another week to heal and contribute to the Cards' emotional postseason run.

"Nobody expected this," said quarterback Kurt Warner, after the Cardinals won in the Eastern time zone for the first time this season after five losses. "It is amazing we are here."

The Cardinals are one game from reaching the Super Bowl. They await the winner of Sunday's Philadelphia-New York Giants game for the NFC Championship. If the Eagles win, the Cardinals will host the game Jan. 18. If the Giants win, the game will be in New York.

While a home game would be preferred, the opponent didn't mean much in the afterglow of the Carolina win.

"You have to take on the next challenge," Warner said, "whatever it is."

The Cardinals (11-7) have done a great job meeting the challenges thus far.

With Boldin out, the Cards' other Pro Bowl pass catcher carried the offense. Larry Fitzgerald was spectacular, gaining 151 yards through the air in the first half alone.

Fitzgerald finished with eight catches for 166 yards – a franchise playoff record -- Warner played like a Pro Bowler (15-for-19, 200 yards two touchdowns) in building a 27-7 halftime lead.

But it was the Cards' oft-maligned defense that set the tone, forcing six turnovers.

After surrendering a five-play touchdown drive to the Panthers (12-5) and falling behind 7-0, the Cards' defense stuck Carolina with a three-and-out on the next drive. By the time the half was over, Arizona had forced three turnovers – leading to 17 points – and held the Panthers to one yard of offense in the second quarter.

The Cardinals ended up intercepting Panthers quarterback Jake Delhomme five times, one each by cornerbacks Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Rod Hood and Ralph Brown, safety Antrel Rolle and linebacker Gerald Hayes.

"That first drive was just jitters, being on the big stage," defensive tackle Bryan Robinson said. "Once they scored, we just told the guys to settle down. And we did."

Said safety Adrian Wilson, "We just played sound football and took it over."

Playing from behind the whole game, Carolina managed just 75 yards rushing – and 41 of that came on the Panthers' opening drive.

"I was a little worried early," coach Ken Whisenhunt said. "But our defense calmed down and I can't give them enough credit."

Fitzgerald got open for a 41-yard gain on the Cards' second series, setting up the Cards' first touchdown, and the Panthers couldn't stop him after that. His last big play came following Hayes' interception, a 29-yard catch-and-run in which he dove to tap the pylon for the score and all but bury Carolina.

Defensive end Antonio Smith's sack-strip-and-fumble recovery set up the Cards' second TD and give Arizona the lead it never relinquished.

The interceptions by Rodgers-Cromartie and Brown came in the Cards' end zone, killing scoring threats. Delhomme, a fan favorite, heard plenty of boos. Star receiver Steve Smith had just two catches for 43 yards, and his lone touchdown came in the final minute, the game long decided.

The Cardinals also ran for 145 yards, on 43 carries, one of their best rushing performances of the season.

The Cards spent the second half cautious offensively, grinding the clock down. And as the seconds faded, the sideline was a collection of smiles, hugs and back slapping.

They were a step away from the Super Bowl, and it was sinking in.

"I guess when we joked earlier in the week of being due, maybe we were," Whisenhunt said. "We've gone through a lot, but we're playing pretty good football right now."

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