- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 10, 2009

CHARLOTTE, N.C. | The Arizona Cardinals spent the week devising ways to slow dynamic running back DeAngelo Williams, speedy receiver Steve Smith and disruptive defensive end Julius Peppers.

But perhaps the biggest obstacle the Cardinals face in Saturday’s NFC divisional playoff game against the Carolina Panthers is not player matchups, but the location. They’re returning to that dreaded place on the map, the abyss of the franchise for years: the Eastern time zone.

The Cardinals are 0-5 in the East this year and 2-19 since 2003. It’s where their defense turns to mush, mistakes pile up and they play the role of homecoming opponent.

A week after winning their first home playoff game in 51 years, the Cardinals venture to Bank of America Stadium - where Carolina went 8-0 during the regular season - to try to end their road hex and win consecutive playoff games for the first time in franchise history.

“That jubilation that you felt after that win last week, I mean it’s indescribable - and that was only a first-round win,” Cardinals receiver Larry Fitzgerald said of the 30-24 victory against the Falcons in front of Arizona fans. “I can’t imagine winning this game or to win the Super Bowl, I just can’t imagine how intense that would feel.”

The Cardinals said they’re confident heading to Charlotte. Unlike that ugly 56-35 loss at the New York Jets, the 48-20 meltdown at Philadelphia and the 47-7 embarrassment in the snow at New England, the Cardinals came close to winning here in October.

Behind Kurt Warner and his dominant receivers, Arizona led 17-3 in the third quarter. But then came the miscues. Turnovers, missed tackles and Smith’s 65-yard touchdown catch put Carolina ahead to stay in a 27-23 win despite Warner’s 381 yards passing.

“We were able to move the ball up and down the field, kind of shot ourselves in the foot with turnovers in the red zone,” said receiver Anquan Boldin, who had two touchdown catches. “But other than that, I think we did what we wanted to.”

Arizona won’t know if Boldin will play until he tests his strained left hamstring before the game Saturday, where rain is in the forecast and the Panthers enter as 9 1/2-point favorites in their first home playoff game in five years.

“Guys are focused, and they realize what’s at stake,” safety Chris Harris said. “We’ve got enough older guys who know they might not ever get this opportunity again.”

One of those old guys celebrates his birthday Saturday. Jake Delhomme turns 34 and hopes to add to his impressive playoff resume against Warner, his former NFL Europe teammate. Delhomme is 5-2 in the playoffs; his 95.0 playoff passer rating is better than any other quarterback in this year’s postseason. Delhomme is also 4-0 against Arizona and the Panthers have beaten the Cardinals five straight times.

Delhomme’s successful return from reconstructive elbow surgery coincided with Carolina’s turnaround after consecutive seasons out of the playoffs.

“We have a few of us here who have been to the Super Bowl, who have been to the [NFC] championship game,” Delhomme said. “You treasure winning 12 games in a season. That just doesn’t happen. We’ve got guys that have been there and we’ve let the other ones know that you need to make the most of it.”

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