[Editor’s note:  Former Broncos G.M. Ted Sundquist breaks down the Week Eight game between the Cardinals and Panthers.] 
This was another contest that could very well preview a potential postseason matchup. Arizona has all but controlled the NFC West for most of the first half of ’08. QB Kurt Warner had led the Cardinals to a solid 4-2 record, with wins over Buffalo and Dallas. Their two losses had come on the road and now they were traveling to Charlotte against another division leader in the Carolina Panthers. It was to be the 5th home game for a Panthers team that was riding a roller coaster of sorts over the past few weeks. Consistency would be a major factor in the resulting outcome.
Arizona is traversing”uncharted territory as leaders of their division. For years this has been a franchise in search of a winning identity and they certainly have shown that capability this season.
I felt this would be a big game in the growth and development of the Cardinals as playoff contenders. As the Giants proved in ’07, however, a team has to be able to win on the road in a quest for a Super Bowl championship.
I felt KEY #1 would be the ability of Arizona to withstand the initial wave of emotion that normally comes with games of this magnitude. Much of their roster lacks playoff experience, and this game would have the look and feel of January play. It would be paramount to keep their poise and establish their game plan early. Any mistakes that might give Carolina an early lead could very well make the second half miserable for the Cardinals.
On top of that, Arizona had struggled to outscore their opponents in the 2nd quarter over the course of the season. I felt that trying to overcome a large deficit in the second half might be just a bit too much for this team at the moment. The Cardinals accepted the challenge and withstood most of the Panther pressure over the first 30 minutes for a 10-3 lead.
Arizona didn’t really establish the run (47 yards on 9 carries, 30 for WR Anquan Boldin) and ultimately it was a few minor mistakes that would lead to major consequences. The Cardinals reached the Panther 7 yard line on their first possession, only to have an unnecessary roughness penalty push them back to the 22. The end result was a field goal, vs. 1st & goal from the 7. Late in the 2nd quarter Arizona was 3rd & 5 from the Panther 11. Warner was sacked and a fake field goal on 4th down came up short. Two trips inside the 20 that netted only 3 points.
Special mention goes to what has to be described as a “heroic” return by Boldin. Coming off of a major injury to the head, Boldin would catch 9 passes for 63 yards and 2 TD’s.
Complementing KEY #1 for the Cardinals was the emphasis on forcing the Panthers off the field in the first half. KEY #2 would be just that for Arizona. Again, the Cardinals accepted the challenge and forced two 3 & outs, along with a fumble recovery on the 2nd play of drive #4. I saw the importance in limiting 3rd down conversions, clock control, and scoring on every opportunity as major factors in achieving the above.
Arizona was solid, but not smothering. Carolina converted on 2 of 6 third downs, trailed in time of possession by only a minute, and the Cardinals squandered a couple of prime chances to build an early lead.
Arizona sacked Panther QB Jake Delhomme once in the first half (Karlos Dansby) & recovered one of two fumbles. The Cardinals were “dead on” in limiting DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart on first down. The Panthers netted 16 yards on 7 carries, only one going for over 4+ (14 yds). The first 4 carries on 1st down that netted less than 4 yards (-6, 1, 1, 0) resulted in a “drive ending series” and eventual punt on 4th.
Again, what Arizona didn’t do was take early advantage of the opportunities they created off of KEY #1 & #2.
Carolina’s deep strike ability would be KEY #3. I felt the Panthers would want to test a Cardinals secondary that had been allowing opposing QB’s a great deal of success down the field. Carolina was 6th in the League going into the game at creating passes of 20+ yards (21). WR’s Steve Smith and Muhsin Muhammad were legitimate “big play” threats to opposing defenses. Both had compiled a number of long TD receptions and both were averaging substantial yardage with each catch.
Carolina took two shots deep in the first half (both to Steve Smith) that fell incomplete. Similarly in the second half, Delhomme would find TE Jeff King on a 31-yarder up the middle (which set up a 15-yd TD by D. Williams) and then later hit Steve Smith up the right side for an 18-yard TD to tie the score at 17. Muhammad was held to 5 receptions, a long of 11 yards. Smith would add a monster play (though controversial) on a 65-yard TD strike off a quick out along the left side line. Delhomme was ultra efficient with a 122.3 rating on the day.
When Carolina defeated Arizona in ’07 it was off a smothering defense that created 5 turnovers on the day. With help from a home field crowd and the resulting noise they would generate, I thought the Panthers might be prime to put some pressure on Warner and force a turnover or two (KEY #4).
In the 3rd quarter, RB Edgerrin James fumbled on the Cardinal 22 and Carolina recovered on the 18. Smith followed on the next play with his 18 yard scoring reception. Then the Panthers turned a late pick on Warner and took over at the Carolina 49 yard line. The resulting drive netted a 50 yard John Kasay field goal to put the lead at 4 with a little over 9 minutes to go.
Those two Arizona second half turnovers directly led to 10 points. And that was more than enough to account for the final four-point margin of defeat.
Bottom line is that to go deep in the playoffs teams have to play 60 minutes of tough, error-free football. By and large the Cardinals stayed in this one to the very end, but mistakes and a 3rd quarter, 21-point collapse brought the same result on the road — another loss.
My final special teams KEY #5 went to Panther punter Jason Baker. Baker stepped up and pinned Arizona inside the 20 twice, just as I said he would. Baker punted three times (all in the first half) and both averaged & netted 44.3 yards. The Cardinals came away with only 3 points off the ensuing three possessions. Baker more than did his part in achieving the key.