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Panthers exorcise playoff demons

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Throughout the locker room this week, the Panthers downplayed the notion of redemption for last January's playoff loss to Arizona.

But that was just a collection of words -- or the lack thereof. Deep within them, a spring of motivation was bubbling. Motivation to defeat the team that ended their season, that sent them on a skid that lingered through October, to use the same team that started the slide into the one that began a turnaround.

"It wasn't talked about; it was understood. All the guys who played in that game last year know how they beat us," said running back DeAngelo Williams. "You always have a professional dislike for each opponent you play. But there was a special emphasis on this game -- not from the coaching staff, not from the players as a whole, but from each individual that played in that game last year.

"It showed out there. We played with a lot of passion."

They bounced onto the field like a champion boxer for a title fight, then channeled that energy onto the Cardinals. First, they knocked them to the canvas with a game-opening. 15-play touchdown march. Then, they jabbed them with 44 runs for 270 yards, the occasional pass and tight defensive coverage that led to six takeaways, propelling Carolina to a 34-21 win Sunday.

"It's nice that we came and won, but we needed it more for the '09 Panthers than to bury something from the '08 Panthers," said quarterback Jake Delhomme. "That's the only way I can put it."

The win not only extended the Panthers' regular-season win streak over the Cardinals to six games, but was their third in the last four weeks after an 0-3 start. But of greater significance than its impact upon the standings was in how the Panthers reversed a myriad of negative trends that defined them both in the January playoff loss and in the last six games.

Perhaps the most dramatic reversal Sunday was in turnovers, which had been a chronic problem this year. Carolina lugged a league-worst league-worst 21 giveaways and a minus-14 turnover ratio into the game, but left with six thefts off Arizona quarterback Kurt Warner -- five interceptions and a fourth-quarter fumble recovery.

Coincidentally -- but perhaps symbolically -- that matched Delhomme's giveaway count last January.

"It's very interesting, and you see what happens: We were on the losing end when we turned the ball over, and they were on the losing end when they turned the ball over," said Thomas Davis, who had a second-quarter interception.

But it was Julius Peppers who was first to the pick party midway through the second quarter, lingering in the backfield just long enough to accept a pass intended for Beanie Wells and returning it 13 yards for the Panthers' first defensive touchdown since Week 1 of the 2008 season at San Diego.

"I was able to get away from the cut block and they threw it right to me," said Peppers, who scored for the first time since Dec. 18, 2004.

Peppers' interception was the Panthers' third touchdown of the quarter -- following Jonathan Stewart's second score of the first half and Steve Smith's 50-yard touchdown reception -- and gave Carolina a 28-7 lead that Arizona would be unable to overcome.

The Panthers failed to build on that lead in the second half, and the Cardinals gradually whittled down the edge, first to 14 points after a Warner touchdown pass to Ben Patrick, then to 10 after Tim Hightower plunged over the goal line from one yard out with 9:44 left. A Carolina three-and-out followed, giving the Cardinals hope for their biggest comeback in nearly 22 years.

With the outcome sliding into doubt midway through the fourth quarter, Peppers provided the knockout punch, dragging down Warner from behind and forcing loose the football. Tyler Brayton recovered at the Arizona 31 with 7:02 remaining. The Cardinals' replay challenge of the play failed, leaving them with no timeouts and effectively ending their hopes.

"He went out and played like Julius Peppers," Davis said, "and we were able to come away with two huge turnovers at key points in the game."

But equally important was the absence of giveaways by the offense. Delhomme was efficient, if unspectacular, completing seven of 14 passes for 90 yards and the touchdown to Smith, which was made possible by an adept pump fake that caused Cardinals cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie to bite. The pump left Smith open, and Delhomme hit him in stride for a score that looked easy, but actually wasn't.

"Probably the hardest catch you can have as a wide receiver is when you're wide open," Smith said. "You know you have the catch. You try to focus on the ball and not how you should catch it."

Delhomme's day turned painful late in the third quarter what he described as a "chest contusion" on a hit by Arizona defensive end Chike Okeafor.

"As soon as I got hit, I felt it immediately," Delhomme said. "When I got on the ground, I couldn't catch my breath."

Remarkably, Delhomme returned on the following series after missing two plays. Yet after an errant pass to Smith and a three-and-out, he was done for the day and hospital-bound for a CT scan.

Matt Moore replaced him for the balance of the game and mainly handed off to Williams and Stewart, who continued to grind up Arizona's defense. Moore's solitary pass was an incompletion intended for tight end Gary Barnidge.

"It was a little bit overthrown, but I've got to hit those," Moore admitted. "A lot of me was saying, 'Protect the ball.' I should have hit that one."

But no matter who was at quarterback, the Panthers rampaged through Arizona's defense, which came into the league as the league's best, allowing just 67.5 yards per game. No running back had gained more than 76 yards against the Cardinals this season, but Williams shattered that statistic with a 77-yard run at the end of the first quarter, setting up the second of Jonathan Stewart's pair of touchdown runs.

Carolina finished the afternoon with the second-best rushing total in franchise history: 270 yards. Stewart picked up 87 and Williams had 158, which pushed him past DeShaun Foster to become Carolina's all-time leading rusher.

"That's what we do. We run the ball. That's Coach Fox ball," Williams said. "It's your will opposed to their will on the other side."

Against Arizona, the Panthers' success came down to executing and imparting that will, something they hadn't done to such a degree since last December's Monday Night Football win over Tampa Bay -- the only time the Panthers ever ran for more than they did against Arizona.

"Hopefully we can do better ... but we played our style of football," said left tackle Jordan Gross. "We didn't turn the ball over. We kept the clock and possession in our favor and wore them out. Hopefully it's a formula we can keep (following)."

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