Quarterback Kurt Warner walks off the field after Panthers defensive end Julius Peppers returned an interception for a touchdown Sunday.
The Cardinals had to feel like they were looking into a mirror.
Ten months separated Sunday's game from the last time the Cards had played the Carolina Panthers. The venue changed, from Charlotte to Glendale. So too, in dramatic fashion, did the results.
By the time the game was over, the Panthers owned a 34-21 win, not quite as dramatic as the 33-13 victory the Cards posted in January but seemingly as emphatic. That January night, Panthers quarterback Jake Delhomme had an infamous five-interception, one-fumble-lost game. Sunday, Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner threw an interception with just a few seconds left on the clock to equal Delhomme's nightmare.
It was impossible not to notice the parallels of the 180-degree turn.
"It's a cruel twist of fate," Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt said.
It's not completely the same, of course. Much more was at stake in that playoff game. While Sunday's result stings, Whisenhunt correctly pointed out his team has the same record as it did last year after seven games (when the 4-2 Cardinals lost to the Panthers, in yet another thread connecting the teams).
Still, coming off the high of beating the Giants in New York the week before – and knowing what there was to gain after division rivals San Francisco and Seattle lost earlier in the day – so much more was expected.
"If you want to be an elite team, you have to win the big games and then come back and not let it drain you or let it affect you emotionally where you don't play to your potential the next week," Warner said.
The Cardinals hoped, after so many ups and downs last season, they were past games like this one, a disappointing showing against what had looked like a beatable team given it was at home. But, cautioned defensive tackle Bryan Robinson, "I don't know if we are past anything."
"One of the things we haven't broke off from doing is playing down to our competition," Robinson added. "We haven't protected our house at all, and we needed a goal-line play to beat Houston in that game."
No one would have ever guessed the Cardinals would be 1-3 after four home games. Of course, after a week in which everyone wondered if Delhomme – who had been, frankly, mostly terrible ever since that meltdown against the Cards – would repeat his errors, it was Warner who never could get untracked.
No one would have guessed the Cards' defense would slide in holding off the running game, either, not to the extent of 270 rushing yards by Carolina – the most by an opponent since 2000, and the fifth-most allowed in franchise history.
"We run the ball," Panthers running back DeAngelo Williams said. "It's what we do."
Anyone would, if their quarterback had been a turnover machine. Maybe the most amazing part of the game was that the Cardinals, despite all the issues needed to be cleaned up, were still very much in the game in the fourth quarter.
The Cardinals were down only 28-14 and had the ball with 14:03 left, only to have Warner's first pass get intercepted when a near-completion to Jerheme Urban popped in the air when he was immediately hit by Chris Gamble. That set up a field goal.
The Cards drove for a touchdown, however, and got the ball back with 7:40 left down 10. A completion even got the ball out to the Arizona 39, but Warner, in trouble, couldn't throw the ball away while scrambling and was sacked by Julius Peppers, forcing the lost fumble.
This time, the Panthers not only got a field goal but drained enough clock to officially end hopes of the fans left at University of Phoenix Stadium. And left the Cards (4-3) with a bunch of what-ifs.
"We started off slow," defensive end Darnell Dockett said. "We didn't have enough energy and enthusiasm at home. I don't know what the problem is. This is our territory. These are games we are supposed to win, and games that can bite you in the (butt)."
Turning the ball over six times will kill a team. It didn't help that the Cardinals couldn't force one turnover from a Carolina team that had been a stunning minus-14 in turnover ratio through six games. That too was somewhat fitting for the game's reflection, which ended up being only a bit of revenge for Carolina.
"We needed it more for the '09 Panthers than to bury something for the '08 Panthers," Delhomme said.
In the locker room after, the mood was anything but happy. Yet it wasn't disarray, either. While it may be frustrating for Whisenhunt and his players that they couldn't avoid a stumble after the previous week, it's also true this team has dealt with – many times – rebounding from a scenario just like this.
"It's funny how people think, 'Oh, they are 2-4 and have no shot against the 4-2 Arizona Cardinals,' " Robinson said. "Well, they get paid too and they read everything about what is written about them just like we are going to read this week about how bad we are now. That's just the way it is.
"At the end of the year, you want to win your division, get to the playoffs, and see what happens."
The Cardinals are still in first place in the NFC West. A trip to Chicago is next, never easy but on the road where they have flourished this season.
When the Cards look in the mirror, they still see what's possible. They still see that team that won in Carolina on their way to a Super Bowl.
"We have to stay together," Dockett said. "It ain't the end of the world. I don't think we got exposed. I just think we got outplayed."
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