CHARLOTTE -- All week long, they pushed themselves in practice.
All afternoon Sunday, they pushed each other on the field.
So when Arizona took a two-touchdown lead in the third quarter, the Carolina Panthers barely blinked.
The Panthers came back for a wild 27-23 win over the Cardinals sparked by an offense that finally caught a spark, a defense that finally landed and a spirit that wouldn't let them be overwhelmed.
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"I think we've got a lot of heart," said middle linebacker Jon Beason. "We play for each other, and we believe. I never thought we were out of the game, I don't think anybody thought we were out of the game. We know if we keep punching, ... we have a saying around here, 'Pound the rock.' Man, you keep pounding and good things are going to happen if you don't quit.
"We've done it, and I think maybe those guys got a little lax over there, thinking 'Hey, this game's about to be blown wide open.' But not here, not this team. We're going to fight for each other."
They did it in ways that defy explanation, because for the first 35 minutes of this one, it looked like they were going to get shelled by a Cardinals team that came east with something to prove. They led 10-3 after a mind-numbing first half, and opened the second with a methodical eight-play touchdown drive to go up 17-3.
That's when something funny happened. It's as if the Panthers were the one struggling with the time zone, and they finally woke up. Apparently, there wasn't a lot of screaming and wailing and gnashing of teeth at halftime, just a matter-of-fact analysis of what they had done -- which wasn't much.
"We were more upset with ourselves," quarterback Jake Delhomme said, pointing to more of a feeling of frustration than anger. "We left some points on the board and we didn't play good football. That was the thing, one play at a time. Don't get caught up in everything else.
"We had to change a few things, and we did during the game. It was just the next play, the next play, and that's what we did."
The Panthers continued making that one play, and it began with running back DeAngelo Williams. He took the first snap of the second half for 14 yards. Caught a pass on the next one for 13 more. Three plays later, and there he was again, bouncing off an attempted shoulder-tackle by Cardinals safety Aaron Francisco and into the end zone.
At that point, the patrons who might have been inclined to ditch this one early took notice. The Panthers were just getting started.
Next came the obligatory defensive play. Defensive tackle Maake Kemoeatu put his giant head on the ball being carried by Arizona running back Edgerrin James, and out it came, lying there waiting for linebacker Thomas Davis to recover at the Cardinals' 18.
On the next play, Delhomme threw a quick lob to Steve Smith for a touchdown, and in a span of 44 seconds, the deficit was gone. Smith probably could have been called for pushing off on the score, even looking over his shoulder while crossing the goal line as if anticipating a flag. "I neither confirm nor deny," Smith said when asked if he was guilty.
The Cardinals weren't done, but they undid themselves even when things looked smooth. Kurt Warner, who passed for 381 yards on the day, continued to hack away at the Panthers secondary, and pushed them ahead again with a touchdown pass to Anquan Boldin late in the third. But Arizona botched the extra point, and if you were looking for a sign, this was it, as the Panthers felt it coming back their way even after falling into another hole.
Delhomme threw a simple out to Smith on third down, the kind of play that gets a first down but not all that much more. But Smith spun out of the tackle attempt by Rod Hood, and though he was off balance, he collected himself and raced for a 65-yard touchdown. Arizona challenged the call, thinking he had stepped out of bounds with his right foot, but he apparently levitated enough to fool referee Walt Coleman, who looked at it for several minutes.
"That is a typical Steve play," Delhomme said with a smile, laughing a little at the memory of it. "Instead of a heel touching, it stayed up. You grin and laugh and you're glad he's on our side."
Smith finished the day with five catches for 117 yards and the two scores, but this day was far from over, and the Panthers were still making the one little play at just the right time.
Dwayne Jarrett, Smith's former whipping boy because he didn't take things seriously enough last year, came up with a painful third-down conversion on their final clock-killing drive. He got nailed by Francisco but hung onto the ball. Smith, after barking at the young receiver to get up so they didn't have to stop the clock, was back in his face at the two-minute warning, while Jarrett was gasping for air and wincing in pain.
"He came up and told me 'Great job, this is the big leagues,'" Jarrett recalled. "He told me how much he loved me and to keep up the good work. He's been supportive the whole way, and it's always good to have a guy like that on your team.
"It feels good, shows you how much they care, how much they depend on you and believe in you. Hearing those words, it was definitely encouraging."
Then it was Williams' turn to convert a third down so they could grind the clock, and again Smith came with the words that boosted him.
"He said something to me and I said, 'I'm going to get these 13 yards,'" Williams said with a laugh. "He said, 'I want to see it, then. Show me something.' We picked up the 13 yards and I was looking for him. I told him, 'I told you I was going to get those 13 yards.'
"We do that to each other. We challenge each other, and it worked out for the best today."
But perhaps the biggest challenge -- even bigger than Warner, who was surgeon-precise all day -- was the week of preparation.
The Panthers haven't stowed the shoulder pads yet, even though they've been through 14 weeks of work. Practices are still physical, still long and still hard, much to the players' chagrin.
"They were on us as if we were 2-5," Smith said of the coaching staff last week. "We're probably beat up a little bit, because in practice they were riding us a lot. And I hate to say it, but obviously, coach knows best."
Arizona 3 7 13 0 -- 23
Carolina 0 3 21 3 -- 27