Charlotte, N.C. — The Arizona Cardinals were expected by most to be easy prey in another futile trip to the East Coast.
Instead, Kurt Warner has the Cardinals within a victory of their first Super Bowl appearance — with a big assist from Jake Delhomme and the bumbling Carolina Panthers.
The once discarded Warner was steady in a 33-13 rout of the Panthers on Saturday night, throwing two touchdown passes, while Delhomme threw five interceptions and lost a fumble.
The target of jokes for years with their history of ineptitude, the Cardinals became the last NFC team to reach the conference championship since the 1970 merger with a win few saw coming.
Entering as a 10-point underdog and ridiculed for their 0-5 record in the Eastern time zone this season, Arizona (11-7) raced to a 27-7 halftime lead and cruised past the mistake-prone Panthers (12-5), who were the league’s only unbeaten team at home in the regular season.
“It’s a group of guys that put their mind to going out and playing great football,” Warner said. “Everybody that needed to step up, stepped up. Everybody that needed to make a play, made a play and that’s what it’s all about.”
They got plenty of help from Delhomme, who turned in a brutal performance on his 34th birthday. Just one shy of the NFL playoff record for interceptions, Delhomme became the first player to have five picks in the playoffs since Oakland’s Rich Gannon in the 2003 Super Bowl against Tampa Bay.
He completed only 17 of 34 passes for 205 yards and one touchdown.