CHARLOTTE – How are the Panthers defensive backs possibly going to keep up with the Cardinals wide receivers in the NFC Championship?
Each time a member of the Carolina secondary heard a question along those lines last week, it added a little more fuel to the fire.
Coaches added more fuel during meetings. They made one thing very clear: The secondary was going to be challenged, and it was up to the group to respond accordingly.
"Coach (Steve) Wilks never let up on us," safety Kurt Coleman said. "He and (defensive coordinator) Sean McDermott really called us out as a DB unit and said, 'In order for us to win, you're going to have to play a big game.'
"So what are we doing to do? What are we going to do as a group? We played our style of football."
The Panthers proved they were up the challenge and then some in a dominant 49-15 victory. Quarterback Carson Palmer, leader of one of the league's most feared offenses, finished with a passer rating of 43.2. His longest completion went for 21 yards.
His top target, future Hall of Fame wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald, finished with just four catches for 30 yards.
"We were challenged. It pisses you off, because they put on their pants the same way you do," cornerback Cortland Finnegan said. "They had the best offense and they said it was going to be a mismatch in the slot with Fitzgerald. Our coach challenged us, especially me. I had a tall task covering him in the slot.
"But the front four got after him early and it made our jobs easy. We made them pay."
The Cardinals took their trademark deep shots early in the game to no avail. And as the first half wore on, the Panthers defensive line continued to put Palmer under duress.
"The whole entire defense did it together," cornerback Robert McClain said. "We wanted to cover. We wanted to get that ball."
The NFL league leaders in takeaways during the regular season took it away from Arizona seven times – four interceptions and three fumbles.
"We felt if we could mix it up and do a good job disguising, move guys around, we felt we could give ourselves a chance," head coach Ron Rivera said.
Coleman recorded two of the four interceptions. The other two picks came courtesy of safety Tre Boston and linebacker Luke Kuechly, who returned his for a 22-yard touchdown.
"Those guys had a great plan for us across the board," Fitzgerald said. "They executed their plan very well. Carolina just put a great game together."
In the end, it was all-but-forgotten cornerbacks Finnegan and McClain – signed by Carolina in the middle of the season – who got the better of Palmer and his explosive weapons.
Said McClain: "Cortland told me before the game, 'Hey man, we are meant to be here. This is our time.'"
View game action photos from Carolina's 49-15 win over Arizona in the NFC Championship.