In the mostly sorry history of the Cardinals franchise, from its days in Chicago, St Louis and Arizona, the team had never managed to win as many as two playoff games in a single season.
Before this postseason, the Cardinals had a total of one playoff victory since winning the NFL championship in 1947. That was in 1998.
But all that is history. And so are the Carolina Panthers.
The Cardinals marched into Bank of America Stadium on Saturday night for a divisional playoff game and thoroughly outplayed heavily favored Carolina in a 33-13 victory in front of a stunned crowd of 73,695. Arizona, which beat Atlanta in the first round, reached the National Football Conference title game for the first time since the league began holding conference championships.
Arizona quarterback Kurt Warner completed 21 of 32 passes for 220 yards and two touchdowns, numbers that probably would have been even more dominating had the game been competitive in the second half. Panthers quarterback Jake Delhomme, playing on his 34th birthday, was 17 of 34 for 205 yards with five interceptions and a lost fumble.
Of course, it is easy to rewrite the record book when it is filled with mostly blank pages. But who would have figured the Cardinals would manage that this season? Arizona won the NFC West, but with a mediocre 9-7 record. And the Cardinals were 2-4 in their last six regular-season games.
That did not seem to matter a week ago, when Arizona beat Atlanta, 30-24, for the first postseason victory by the Cardinals since 1998 and the first home playoff victory in 61 years. But that victory earned the Cardinals a visit to the Eastern time zone, which has been disastrous for them this season. The Cardinals were 0-5 in the East this year, and faced a Panthers team that was 8-0 at home in the regular season.
The Cardinals also were without the Pro Bowl wide receiver Anquan Boldin, who was on the inactive list after sustaining a strained left hamstring against Atlanta last week. Boldin had 89 catches for 1,038 yards and 11 touchdowns during the regular season.
It did not seem to bode well for the Cardinals when the Panthers scored in the opening minutes. A 9-yard touchdown run by Jonathan Stewart just three minutes, four seconds into the game capped Carolina’s opening drive.
But the field quickly tilted the other way. Arizona scored two touchdowns in less than a minute on the way to a dominating first half as the Panthers bumbled and blew any chance at making it a competitive game.
The onslaught began when Warner hit Tim Hightower on a 3-yard touchdown pass with 2:43 left in the first quarter to tie it at 7-7. Arizona’s second touchdown came less than a minute later, when Edgerrin James scored on a 4-yard touchdown run to put the Cardinals ahead, 14-7.
After Delhomme was intercepted at the Cardinals’ goal line by Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, the Cardinals converted the turnover into a 49-yard field goal by kicker Neil Rackers with 10:16 left in the second quarter, putting Arizona ahead, 17-7. Rackers added a 20-yarder about five minutes later to make it 20-7.
If the Panthers had any designs on rallying, they ended when Delhomme was picked off for the second time. It came on Carolina’s first play from scrimmage after Rackers’ second field goal. Gerald Hayes intercepted a pass intended for Muhsin Muhammad and gave Arizona the ball at the Carolina 44-yard line.