The Arizona Cardinals were expected by most to be easy prey in another futile trip to the East Coast.
Instead, Kurt Warner and the Cardinals are a victory away from their first Super Bowl appearance—with a big assist from Jake Delhomme and the bumbling Carolina Panthers.
The once discarded Warner was steady in a 33-13 rout of the Panthers on Saturday night, throwing two touchdown passes, while Delhomme threw five interceptions and lost a fumble.
The target of jokes for years with their history of ineptitude, the Cardinals became the last NFC team to reach the conference championship since the 1970 merger with a win few saw coming.
Entering as a 10-point underdog and ridiculed for their 0-5 record in the Eastern time zone this season, Arizona (11-8) raced to a 27-7 halftime lead and cruised past the mistake-prone Panthers (12-5), who were the league’s only unbeaten team at home in the regular season.
Instead, Delhomme turned in a brutal performance on his 34th birthday. Just one shy of the NFL playoff record for interceptions, Delhomme became the first player to have five picks in the playoffs since Oakland’s Rich Gannon in the 2003 Super Bowl against Tampa Bay.
He completed only 17 of 34 passes for 205 yards and one touchdown. His woes made Steve Smith a non-factor. The Pro Bowl receiver didn’t have his first catch until the final minute of the third quarter.
Smith caught a meaningless 8-yard touchdown pass from Delhomme with 50 seconds left, when the Cardinals had already begun looking forward to either visiting the New York Giants or hosting Philadelphia on Jan. 18.
Arizona had been embarrassed when they ventured far from home, but the closest they came was a 27-23 loss here in October when the Cardinals blew a two-touchdown lead.
There would be no suspense this time.
While Pro Bowl receiver Anquan Boldin (hamstring) sat out, Fitzgerald more than made up for the loss. The 6-foot-3 receiver had eight catches for a team playoff-record 166 yards while shredding the Panthers’ leaky secondary.
The Cardinals’ defense stopped Carolina’s potent running game, too. A week after shutting down Atlanta’s Michael Turner, DeAngelo Williams was held to 63 yards in a crushing loss for the Panthers, the No. 2 seed in the NFC who had visions of reaching their third NFC title game in six years.
Instead, Warner stole the stage. A decade after his storybook MVP season in winning the Super Bowl with St. Louis a year after he was teammates with Delhomme in NFL Europe, the 37-year-old Warner has another team on the brink of a most unlikely title.
And it was a stunningly ugly performance by Delhomme.
Entering with a 5-2 postseason record, Delhomme’s 95.0 playoff passer rating coming in was better than any other quarterback in this season’s playoffs.
But Delhomme threw two interceptions and lost a fumble in the first half, making poor reads, holding the ball too long and giving the Cardinals great field position.
Defensive end Antonio Smith stripped Delhomme and recovered the ball at the Carolina 13 late in the first quarter. Two plays later Edgerrin James’ 4-yard touchdown put the Cardinals ahead to stay 14-7.
Delhomme started hearing boos when he was intercepted by Gerald Hayes midway through the second quarter. Warner turned that into another touchdown, finding a streaking Fitzgerald for a 29-yard pass for a stunning 27-7 halftime lead that silenced the once towel-waving crowd.
It was a horrible performance for the Panthers in front of their ailing owner. Jerry Richardson visited with Smith on the field before the game before watching from a suite as he awaits a heart transplant that’s limited his daily activities and halted his travel on the road with the team.
The Panthers played like the only unbeaten team at home in the regular season for only the opening drive. Williams had a 31-yard run, setting up rookie Jonathan Stewart’s 9-yard touchdown scamper for a 7-0 lead.