Despite an 11-5 regular-season record and a shutout win on the road over the New York Giants in the NFC Wild Card, few people gave the Panthers much of a chance when they ventured to Chicago to face the Bears in an NFC Divisional Playoff on Jan. 15, 2006.
And why would they? The two teams had met at the same venue, Chicago's famed Soldier Field, not even two months earlier, and the Bears had posted a dominant 13-3 victory. Chicago's defense, which gave up a league-low 12.9 points per game in the regular season and a total of only 61 points in eight home games, had sacked quarterback Jake Delhomme eight times.
"We played them in November, and I played poorly. The whole team did. We couldn't run it; we couldn't throw it. I kept getting sacked. And they were on that day. They were extremely good," Delhomme said.
But what happened in November didn't matter in January. Or if it did, Delhomme thought it actually was to the Panthers' advantage.
"We went in there, and it was probably a blessing that we had lost to them in November because they probably thought they were going to be able to handle us pretty easily," Delhomme said. "And we went in there and jumped on them from the get-go, and we never let up."
What eventually became a 29-21 victory for Carolina began and ended with Delhomme throwing the ball to wide receiver Steve Smith.
View photos of the best of the Panthers in the 2005 season, a year where Carolina advanced to the NFC Championship game.
Just 55 seconds into the game, Delhomme found the streaking Smith for a 58-yard touchdown that gave the Panthers a 7-0 lead they would never relinquish. Delhomme remembers it clearly to this day.
"Steve ran down the right sideline, right past (cornerback) Charles Tillman and then Mike Brown, who was the safety. He made him miss," Delhomme said.
Although the Panthers never trailed, the Bears had pulled to within 16-14 when Delhomme connected with Smith for another touchdown, this time from 39 yards, to extend the lead to 23-14 just before the end of the third quarter.
"They had some kind of mix-up and they ended up having a young guy covering Steve, and I was able to get a check-off and set a go route," Delhomme said. "Steve just ran right past the guy, really put the burners on and took off, and we scored again. That's when Steve jumped on the goalpost and kind of slid down it like he was a fireman or something."
When the day was over, Smith had produced 12 catches for 218 yards and two touchdowns. The performance - one of the best in NFL playoff history - followed a regular season in which he led the NFL with 1,563 receiving yards, one year after breaking his leg in the 2004 season opener versus Green Bay.
"I'm really just utilizing my talents," Smith said. "They throw me the ball, it's my job to catch it. If I don't catch the ball, they will get somebody in here who will. I've got people at home depending on me to do my job, so I can't come home with excuses."
Head coach John Fox said, "He (Smith) is as tough a competitor as you can find at any position. He does well home or away."
The Panthers won despite losing running back DeShaun Foster, a key offensive weapon, when he suffered a broken leg during the game that sidelined him for the rest of the playoffs.
"And DeShaun was having a fantastic second half of the season," Delhomme said. "But DeShaun breaks his leg, and we were still able to get after them and keep them where they were playing from behind. To be honest, their offense really wasn't that great. And on defense, they couldn't really run their typical cover-2 type scheme. They had to play man-to-man, and we were really able to get after them and close the deal."
Delhomme completed 24-of-33 passes for 319 yards and three touchdowns - also throwing a 1-yard touchdown to tight end Kris Mangum - with one interception to generate a quarterback rating of 120.6. The offensive line provided excellent protection, surrendering only one sack.
The defense also played well, allowing the Bears to convert only three-of-13 third-down opportunities. Linebacker Dan Morgan led Carolina with nine tackles, defensive tackle Jordan Carstens collected a sack and cornerback Ken Lucas had an interception.
"That was, honestly, one of the top wins of my career personally, going into Chicago, Soldier Field, (with) all the mystique and the cold weather in the second round of the playoffs. That was the NFL," said Delhomme, who directed the Panthers to their second NFC Championship game in three years against Seattle. "They were the No. 1 seed (in the NFC), had gone 13-3 in the regular season and beaten us earlier. Winning that game was just huge.
"We were just on that day. We played a lot better than we had against them in November. It was just one of those days. We were able to get after them right away, and I think we shocked them, the way we jumped on them early. Then we just didn't stop. We were the hammer and not the nail that day, and I think it was vice versa the first time we had played them.
"It's certainly one of the games in my career that I will never forget."