Arizona wide receiver Anquan Boldin scored twice against Carolina in October. (PHOTO: STREETER LECKA / GETTY IMAGES)
CHARLOTTE -- The Panthers knew going into the first weekend of the new year that a few days away from the field would provide a welcome physical break after eight consecutive games following a midseason bye.
But they also recognized the value of a mental respite.
Head coach John Fox joked on Dec. 22 that the regular-season finale at New Orleans was another "biggest game ever," mimicking the phrase that had often been uttered about the Panthers' games beginning with the 38-23 Monday Night Football win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Dec. 8.
But in truth, the heavyweight games began falling upon the Panthers in Week 13 at Green Bay, one week after the 45-28 loss to the Atlanta Falcons left the Panthers in a tie for first place. From that point forward, the Panthers could scarcely afford to falter -- and in the end, the 4-1 finish was just good enough to edge the Falcons at the finish for the NFC South title.
The environment into which the Falcons flew last Saturday was hostile and raucous, made even noisier by the decision to close the roof at Arizona's University of Phoenix Stadium for the wild-card game that saw the Cardinals eliminate Arizona 30-24. If the Panthers had fallen at Green Bay or New Orleans or at home to Tampa Bay and Denver, it would have been them facing that daunting challenge.
No wonder the Panthers, having survived with a 12-4 record and the No. 2 seed, needed to take a deep breath.
"Looking all the way back to the Packers game in November and all the way through December, they've all been close games," left tackle Jordan Gross said. "It's something that's really carried an emotional burden with them, too, some division games and everything. So it's nice for us to get to kind of calm down a little bit and refocus."
IN ARIZONA ... All eyes will be on wide receiver Anquan Boldin, who strained his hamstring near the end of his 71-yard touchdown reception in Saturday's 30-24 wild-card win over the Atlanta Falcons. He briefly returned but did not touch the football again,
"We'll see how it goes this week," Cardinals head coach Ken Whisenhunt said at a press conference Monday morning at his team's headquarters in Tempe, Ariz.
"When you're dealing with hamstrings, you just never know."
This would not be the first time that questions centered around Boldin's health as he prepared to face the Panthers; his status was in the air heading into Week 8 as he looked to play for the first time since suffering facial injuries on a collision late in a Week 4 loss to the New York Jets.
Boldin managed to play against Carolina, snatching nine passes for 63 yards and two touchdowns. He would average 7.8 receptions for 84.0 yards and 0.75 touchdowns in the eight games he played before he first injured his hamstring in Week 15 against Minnesota, causing him to miss the last two weeks of the regular season.
BUT ... the Cardinals' passing game and performance overall was still high without Boldin in the lineup. Arizona actually had a better record in the games he missed, going 3-1 without him -- which included home wins over Buffalo and Dallas, who were a combined 8-1 heading into their trips to the desert.
Boldin's injuries forced the Cardinals' aerial game to grow more diverse -- which was evidenced against the Panthers, even with Boldin contributing. That day, Warner's 381 yards came to nine different pass catchers, with wide receivers Larry Fitzgerald, Steve Breaston and Jerheme Urban each contributing more than 50 yards in receptions to the cause.
The moral of the story? Even if Boldin can't play, Arizona's pass-catchers are a world-class group.