December 14, 2011

2003: Panthers Defeat Cardinals to Clinch Division Title

In their first eight years after coming into the NFL as an expansion franchise in 1995, the Carolina Panthers achieved both a winning record and division title on one occasion, in 1996. Since that time, they had reached .500 once and, in 2001, suffered through a dreadful 1-15 season. On December 14, 2003 the Panthers faced the Arizona Cardinals sporting an 8-5 tally and with an opportunity to once again reach the playoffs.

In the second year under Head Coach John Fox, Carolina was better offensively thanks to the addition of veteran RB Stephen Davis, who had been obtained from the Redskins. QB Jake Delhomme, in his first year starting behind center, was improving as the weeks went by in operating the conservative attack and had a good target when he passed in up-and-coming WR Steve Smith (pictured above). The defense was the key to the team’s turnaround, however, and the strength of that unit was the outstanding line that featured ends Mike Rucker and Julius Peppers and tackles Kris Jenkins and Brentson Buckner. However, after starting off 8-2, Carolina had lost its previous three games and needed to get back into the win column.

As for the Cardinals, coached by Dave McGinnis, the season was already yet another lost cause in what had been the franchise’s long-time pattern. They were 3-10 coming into the contest with Carolina and had lost five straight.

There were just 23,217 in attendance at Sun Devil Stadium and the game started off with a rash of turnovers. The Cardinals got a 35-yard return of the opening kickoff by RB Josh Scobey to provide them with good initial field position at their own 46 yard line, but two plays later RB Marcel Shipp fumbled and CB Dante Wesley recovered for Carolina. Delhomme’s first pass of the day was intercepted by safety Dexter Jackson. Arizona QB Josh McCown, making his first start in his second year with the club, was in turn picked off by SS Mike Minter, who returned it 35 yards for a touchdown to put the Panthers ahead by 7-0.

The teams traded punts before the Cardinals put together a scoring drive of 80 yards in 10 plays. McCown completed all four of his passes and ran for 15 yards on a quarterback draw in a third-and-twelve situation. He rolled out and ran again for a 16-yard touchdown and the score was tied at 7-7 following one quarter of action.

Carolina started off the second quarter by driving to the Arizona 32, but Delhomme fumbled when hit by DE Fred Wakefield and the Cards recovered. They again mounted a 10-play scoring drive that went 59 yards. McCown was successful once more on all four of his passes, including a 15-yard completion to WR Anquan Boldin on a third-and-nine play to the Panthers’ four. On the next play, aging all-time great RB Emmitt Smith ran the remaining distance for a TD to put the Cardinals ahead.

The Panthers once more drove into Arizona territory with Delhomme completing a pass to Davis for 17 yards and RB DeShaun Foster running for a 16-yard gain, but had to punt. Arizona maintained the 14-7 lead at halftime.

The clubs again traded punts to start off the third quarter before Delhomme connected with Steve Smith for 36 yards to the Arizona 34. The drive finally ended at the three yard line and John Kasay kicked a 21-yard field goal that narrowed the Cards’ lead to 14-10.

Following an Arizona series that ended with a punt, Carolina put together a 93-yard drive in nine plays that extended into the fourth quarter and put the Panthers ahead. Delhomme completed five passes, including two to Smith for 14 yards, one to TE Kris Mangum that gained 19, and a 31-yard scoring throw to Foster. With Kasay’s extra point, the Panthers had a 17-14 lead.

The Cardinals came back with a series that featured runs of 11 yards by Emmitt Smith and 21 by Shipp. They reached the Carolina 17, but a 35-yard field goal attempt by Neil Rackers was unsuccessful. The Panthers went three-and-out in their next possession and Arizona again mounted a drive from its own 30. McCown completed a pass to Boldin for a 24-yard gain in a third-and-20 situation and the series reached the Carolina 12 before penalties backed the Cardinals up. Rackers booted a 44-yard field goal and the score was tied at 17-17 with just over a minute remaining in regulation.

The Panthers came out throwing and the combination of Delhomme to Steve Smith was good for five pass completions that covered 41 yards. With time running out, Kasay was successful on a 49-yard field goal attempt and the Panthers came away with a 20-17 win and the NFC South title. It was the seventh time over the course of the season that they had won by three points or less.

The Cardinals outgained Carolina (317 yards to 298) and had more first downs (23 to 17). Each team turned the ball over twice, but the Panthers sacked McCown five times while Delhomme was dumped for a loss just once.

Steve Smith had a big performance as he caught 9 passes for 99 yards and was especially significant during the game-winning drive; he also had a 21-yard punt return. Jake Delhomme completed 20 of 32 passes for 236 yards with a touchdown and an interception. Stephen Davis led the ground game with 48 yards on 13 carries.

For the Cardinals, Josh McCown showed poise as he was successful on 14 of 25 throws for 172 yards with one picked off - he also ran six times for 48 yards and a TD. Marcel Shipp rushed for 89 yards on 23 carries while Emmitt Smith (pictured at right) contributed 23 yards and a touchdown on his 9 attempts. Anquan Boldin led the receivers with 7 catches for 73 yards.

“Are we playing our best football right now? Probably not,” said Delhomme. “But we still got the win, and that's an encouraging sign.”

They might not have been playing their best football, but the win over Arizona was the first of six straight – three to conclude the regular season with an 11-5 record and three more in the playoffs to win the NFC Championship. They lost a closely-fought Super Bowl to the Patriots. The Cardinals ended up 4-12 and at the bottom of the NFC West in what proved to be the last year for Coach McGinnis.

Steve Smith, who had caught a total of 64 passes in his first two seasons and had been better known for his outstanding kick returning, had 88 receptions for 1110 yards (12.6 avg.) and seven touchdowns. Jake Delhomme did not put up big passing numbers in a ball control offense but did crack the league’s Top 10 in yards per attempt (7.2) and yards per completion (12.1).