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Underdogs win Divisional Playoff games

January 10, 2009 12:00:00 AM PST
The target of jokes for years with their history of ineptitude, the Arizona Cardinals are a victory away from their first Super Bowl appearance. Kurt Warner was steady in a 33-13 rout of the bumbling Carolina Panthers on Saturday night, throwing two touchdown passes as the Cardinals became the last NFC team to reach the conference championship since the 1970 merger with a win few saw coming.

"Everybody that needed to step up, stepped up," Warner said. "Everybody that needed to make a play, made a play and that's what it's all about."

Arizona (11-7) entered as a 10-point underdog, was ridiculed for its 0-5 record in the Eastern time zone this season and was taking on the league's only unbeaten team at home in the regular season. It turned out to be no contest, thanks in large part to Jake Delhomme and the mistake-prone Panthers (12-5).

The Carolina quarterback 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.

"I'm at a loss for words," Delhomme said. "Usually I'm not. For one reason or another, I didn't give us a chance tonight."

The Cardinals raced to a 27-7 halftime lead and had already begun looking forward to either visiting New York or hosting Philadelphia on Jan. 18. The Eagles (10-6-1) are at the Giants (12-4) on Sunday.

In the AFC, Baltimore edged Tennessee 13-10 earlier Saturday, and Pittsburgh (12-4) hosts San Diego (9-8) on Sunday.

Arizona had been embarrassed when it ventured far from home, but the closest it came was a 27-23 loss at Carolina in October when the Cardinals blew a two-touchdown lead.

There would be no suspense this time.

While Pro Bowl receiver Anquan Boldin (hamstring) sat out, Larry Fitzgerald more than made up for the loss. The 6-foot-3 receiver had eight catches for a team playoff-record 166 yards while shredding the Panthers' leaky secondary.

A week after shutting down Atlanta's Michael Turner, Arizona held DeAngelo Williams to 63 yards rushing.

It was a crushing loss for the Panthers, the No. 2 seed in the NFC who had visions of reaching their third NFC title game in six years. They were undone by Delhomme, who completed only 17 of 34 passes for 205 yards and one touchdown.

Ravens 13, Titans 10

Wind, rain, tough defense and lots of hard feelings. Two teams with an extreme dislike for each other never stopped pounding it out.

The difference: Baltimore forced three turnovers and never gave away the ball, as the Ravens advanced to the AFC championship game on Matt Stover's 43-yard field goal with 53 seconds remaining.

Led by Joe Flacco, the first rookie quarterback to win two playoff games, the Ravens (13-5) will play at Pittsburgh or San Diego next week for the right to go to the Super Bowl.

Baltimore's postseason run looks eerily similar to when it won the championship after the 2000 season. Back then, it also was a wild card and also won in Tennessee on the way to the title.

This victory was engineered by a brutal defense that forced mistakes by the Titans (13-4), who had the league's best record this season.

Tennessee, a plus-14 in turnover margin while winning the AFC South, wasted a half-dozen scoring opportunities with errors. The Titans' ground game suffered after rookie running back Chris Johnson left with his right ankle wrapped late in the first half.

Flacco finished 11-of-22 for 161 yards and a touchdown to Derrick Mason.

Eagles-Giants

New York and Philadelphia aren't only playing for a trip to the NFC title game. This one is personal.

Play a team in your own division three times in a season, and things get that way. Add in the 95-mile trek up or down the New Jersey Turnpike and the fact that Sunday's game will be the eighth between the teams in the last three seasons, and this rivalry can get downright nasty.

The NFC semifinal at Giants Stadium matches the defending Super Bowl champions against the team that many think will be the 2009 version of the Giants.

Of the seven previous games during the last three seasons, only two have been decided by more than 10 points, with the largest margin being 14.

The two games this season were decided by a combined 11 points. New York won 36-31 in Philadelphia and the Eagles returned the favor at Giants Stadium 20-14 on Dec. 7.

Chargers-Steelers

The Chargers' travels to Pittsburgh are filled with curiosities, a remarkable run of odd games, unexpected results and strange scores, comebacks that succeeded and game plans that failed.

There was the AFC championship game where the Chargers drew motivation from a dance video. The first and only NFL tournament. And the latest oddity, the only 11-10 score in NFL history earlier this season.

Going back to Pittsburgh, where they're 2-13, and going against the NFL's top-ranked defense probably don't seem as daunting now that the Chargers, against long odds, are averaging 34.4 points during a five-game winning streak. The latest surprise was their 23-17 overtime decision last weekend over Indianapolis, which had won nine in a row.

Meanwhile, Pittsburgh hopes quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is healed from his concussion.

He was injured in a 31-0 rout of Cleveland on Dec. 28, and experienced headaches for nearly a week. Roethlisberger played possibly the worst game of his career, throwing four interceptions in Oakland in 2006, the last time he returned from a concussion.


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