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One Night In Carolina

Fortunes shifted for Cards, Panthers the last time teams met


Safety Antrel Rolle returns an interception in last season's 33-13 playoff victory in Carolina.
Much was already at stake that evening in Carolina almost 10 months ago, given that it was a Divisional playoff game.

But the echoes of what turned out to be a 33-13 Cardinals' romp over the Panthers seem to have reverberated well past that drizzly Saturday night – all the way till this week, when the Cards and Panthers meet for a fourth time in three seasons Sunday at University of Phoenix Stadium.

Carolina quarterback Jake Delhomme led a 12-4 team, but melted down in a barrage of turnovers – five interceptions, one lost fumble. The Cardinals' defense showed signs of what it looks like it is becoming with a dominant effort. The Cardinals also won a game in the East after spending a season unable to do so.

The Panthers, and Delhomme in particular, have never found traction since then. The Cardinals reached a Super Bowl and are in first place in the division again.

The game was "absolutely" a pivot point for the Cards, safety Antrel Rolle said.

"I think we took it as a team as a statement," said Rolle, who had one of the five interceptions that night.

"I just think during that whole playoff run we started to believe we can play with anybody and I don't know if that was the case before," said quarterback Kurt Warner, whose postgame locker room speech imploring his teammates to "Shock the world!" eventually came true.

Coach Ken Whisenhunt brings up the game often in context of the Cardinals' road improvement. The Cards had lost in Washington, New York, New England, Philadelphia and Carolina during the regular season. The losses to the Jets, Patriots and Eagles were plain ugly.

The Cardinals went to Carolina – who had a bye while the Cards beat the Falcons at home in the Wild Card round – as considerable underdogs. But the Cards had confidence, given they felt they had blown the game in Carolina earlier (it was a 27-23 loss) and never seemed to be affected by their East coast issues.

With the Cards 3-0 on the road this season, Whisenhunt saw the Panthers' win as the turning point.

"(That game had) a lot of things that was difficult for us," Whisenhunt said. "That gave us confidence. I have no doubt that contributed to our ability to win better on the road."

If the game gave the Cardinals confidence about playing on the road and even playing better defense, the opposite seems to have happened with the Panthers.

Cardinals reserve offensive lineman Jeremy Bridges was a starter for those Panthers, and he insisted Wednesday the hard part for the Panthers was that they didn't play to their potential that night. But as for lasting impact, "it was just a loss, man. Nothing more, nothing less."

Delhomme, though, felt responsible.

"It was crushing because you let your team down in the biggest game of the year when you always felt you were the one they could count on in those situations," Delhomme said.

Delhomme insisted he didn't feel any hangover from the performance heading into the season.  But then, in the opener against the Eagles, he suffered a couple of batted balls that were intercepted.

"I was like, 'Oh come on, this can't be happening again,' " Delhomme admitted. "That did creep in."

Delhomme's woes have continued. In six games, he has 15 turnovers – 13 interceptions and two lost fumbles – with just four touchdown passes. Fox thought about benching him before officially announcing he was keeping Delhomme in the lineup Wednesday.

Panthers coach John Fox said he wasn't even sure if the Cardinals' game has become a long-term problem with Delhomme.

"I can't honestly answer that," Fox said. "If you looked at it, you would think it did. (But) I don't put as much stock into that because each of these games takes on its own personality."

Reliving the game, for obvious reasons, has been difficult for the Panthers. Delhomme said if he and his teammates had a winning record and were playing well, they'd embrace the idea of revenge as possible motivation, but the struggles have been so pronounced "we're just trying to get good."

On the subject of whether he thought it would be easy or difficult for his team to deal with this rematch, Fox quipped, "If you ask me for my preference, I would rather get a 'W' from a bye week."

"They don't do that," he added. "That's a hard question to answer."

What's easy to figure out was how important the victory was for the Cardinals, both for their improbable Super run and their growth as a playoff contender going forward.

"It was something we needed," Warner said, "as an organization."

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