CHARLOTTE -- It sure looked like the Carolina Panthers won a playoff game, they were just wearing red uniforms.
It was actually the Arizona Cardinals who left Bank of America Stadium with a berth in the NFC Championship Game, after man-handling the Panthers 33-13 in Saturday's Divisional round game.
And they did it in all the ways the Panthers have traditionally had success.
They ran enough times to control the clock. They made big plays downfield to their star wide receiver. They forced the opponent into mistakes with an aggressive and opportunistic defense. Their NFL Europe-refugee quarterback made plays throughout the night, playing cleanly to quiet a crowd that was expecting something far different.
Those things all came through in spades, but the team that supposedly didn't have a chance never allowed the favorite to look like one.
"It's tough to have your worst game when it matters most," cornerback Ken Lucas said.
The Panthers entered a 10-point favorite, but suffered their second straight painful playoff defeat. This one was similar in so many ways to their 2005 NFC Championship Game loss at Seattle -- only worse. Like that night, Panthers quarterback Jake Delhomme disintegrated, but it wasn't for a lack of running backs. Instead, they never established their running game, and a Cardinals pass defense that looked vulnerable took turns making Delhomme look awful.
For his 34th birthday, Delhomme turned the ball over three times in the first half alone, and was far from finished in that regard.
He came into the game as the league's third-highest-rated postseason passer, behind only Hall of Famers Joe Montana and Bart Starr. By the end of the night, he looked like the guy who used to be behind Aaron Brooks and the Billy Joes during his days as a New Orleans backup.
He finished with five interceptions, one short of the league's postseason record.
"I should (get the blame), Delhomme said. "I had a hand in six turnovers. I should get the blame. It's inexcusable and disappointing."
Now the team that lives outside Phoenix waits to see if it gets another home game in its improbable rise from the ashes. For a team that hadn't had a home playoff game in 61 years prior to last week's Wild Card win over Atlanta, it now has a chance to host the league's semifinal.
The Cards would host Philadelphia if the Eagles can win this afternoon's other NFC Divisional round game, while they'd travel to the Meadowlands if top-seeded New York wins.
Of course, the Cards lost to both teams during the regular season, dropping the back-to-back games by a combined score of 85-49.
For all their own passing problems, the Panthers had no answer for the Kurt Warner to Larry Fitzgerald connection, which accounted for 151 yards in the first half alone. Fitzgerald finished the night with eight catches for 166 yards.
The Panthers refused to allow
cornerback Chris Gamble to cover him full-time, sticking to their guns to leave what became a porous pass defense alone.
In 2005, when Gamble was hurt and ineffective in a regular season game at Arizona, they told Lucas to stay on him and the plan worked. Saturday night, they played him straight-up throughout the night, and it cost them.
During the decisive first half, the Cards kept looking for Fitzgerald, and when he was covered by Lucas or Richard Marshall, they kept throwing his way.
It worked, so why quit?
The Panthers actually got the night off to a running start. From returner Mark Jones taking the opening kickoff on the fly for 39 yards to DeAngelo Williams popping off a 31-yard scamper moments later, the Panthers had the Cards on their heels early.
Jonathan Stewart gave them the first points, blasting in from 9 yards out with 11 minutes and 56 seconds left in the first quarter.
Fitzgerald got past Lucas for 31 and 41-yard gains in the first quarter alone, the second one setting up a game-tying score. After Fitzgerald went up in front of safety Charles Godfrey, with Lucas trailing too late, they took over at the 10. Three plays later, Warner hit running back Tim Hightower for a 3-yard touchdown pass which tied it.
Then when the Panthers made a mistake, they were quick to capitalize.
Delhomme was stripped by defensive end Antonio Smith, who simply reached around guard Travelle Wharton for the play, batted the ball out of Delhomme's hands, and fell on it. They wasted no time, with Edgerrin James rushing in from 4 yards to take a 14-7 lead with 1:47 left in the quarter.
Then when it appeared the Panthers were about to even it up, another turnover undid their plans. After moving to the Cardinals 14 just after the start of the second quarter (on a 45-yard pass interference penalty), Delhomme tried forcing one to Smith but cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie stepped in front for the interception.
More Panthers mistakes enabled the Cards to take a 17-7 lead on Neil Rackers' 49-yard field goal with 10:16 left in the second.
Not that they needed any help early, but the Cards got 15 easy yards when Panthers nickel back Richard Marshall decided to smack receiver Early Doucet in the head at the end of a running play.
They tacked on another Rackers field goal with 5:28 left in the half, after another pair of pitch-and-catch completions to Fitzgerald.
Delhomme's third turnover of the night, an interception by linebacker Gerald Hayes, enabled the Cards to make the lead 20 with 3:32 left in the half, when a mysteriously wide open Fitzgerald (allegedly covered by linebacker Jon Beason), stretched the ball across the goal line at the end of a 29-yard catch-and-run for a 27-7 lead.
Even when the Panthers made one good play, another worse one followed to wipe it out.
Beason tried to provide a spark with an interception, but Delhomme gave it right back.
Looking for Smith, he double pumped under pressure, and then tried to needle a pass between Rodgers-Cromartie and safety Antrel Rolle, who ended up with the tipped pass and returned it 47 yards.
That set up another Rackers field goal from 33, which gave them a 30-7 lead with 4:40 left in the third quarter.
Nothing the Panthers tried was working on this night. They even went for a fourth down in the third quarter (just the ninth time they had tried that all year), but when Delhomme fired a quick out to Muhsin Muhammad, his veteran receiver's back was still turned as the ball fell harmlessly to the ground.
They threatened on their next possession, driving to the Cards' 12. But then, after a frustrating delay penalty backed them up, Delhomme proceeded to throw number four.
After that, he didn't have the energy to get mad at himself, hanging his head limply as he walked to the bench. When he'd go out, he'd simply offer another one, just missing Rodgers-Cromartie on first down of the next possession before hitting Rod Hood in the hands for number five on second down.
• Philadelphia at N.Y. Giants, 1 p.m., FOX (cable channel 11 in Rock Hill)
• San Diego at Pittsburgh, 4:30 p.m., CBS (cable channel 5 in Rock Hill)