Carolina's big plans fall apart

Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Never before had the Carolina Panthers been so set up.

They were healthy coming off a bye week and playing at Bank of America Stadium, where they're supposed to be unbeatable. The Arizona Cardinals were coming to town. Name the last time Arizona won a playoff game before last week.

Just let "Double Trouble'' (running backs DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart) and receiver Steve Smith do their thing. Hope for the Philadelphia Eagles to beat the New York Giants on Sunday to put the NFC Championship Game in Charlotte and put the Panthers on their way to the Super Bowl. It all seemed so clear and so easy.

Maybe that was the problem. Maybe the Panthers -- players, coaches and even fans -- got way ahead of themselves.

"In a nutshell, we picked a bad day to have a bad day,'' coach John Fox said after a 33-13 loss to Arizona.

Fox generally doesn't understate things, but this time he did. The Panthers picked a bad day to have a horrible night and that gives rise to some issues for a team that didn't seem to have any.

If there's a common thread to the Fox era in Carolina, it's this: When not much is expected of the Panthers, they'll surprise the heck out of you. Remember the 2003 Super Bowl run and the 2005 trip to the NFC Championship Game when the Panthers ran out of running backs and Smith carried them?

The flip side is, when the Panthers have been expected to do big things, they haven't. There was the season following the Super Bowl, which was a dud. And there was 2006, when Keyshawn Johnson was supposed to be the missing link, but wasn't.

Then, there was Saturday night. That's when the team with a big black cat for a mascot hacked up a fur ball.

Take nothing away from the Cardinals, who won two playoff games in a season for the first time in their existence. But take a lot away from the Panthers because that's what you do when a No. 2 seed gets blown out at home by a No. 4 seed.

By the end of it, Team Harmony, which supposedly had something magical happen after Ken Lucas forgave Smith for punching him in training camp, was a team exposed in multiple areas.

Start with quarterback Jake Delhomme. The man who was the king of the comeback in that 2003 season was the master of disaster. He threw five interceptions and lost a fumble.

"Jake had a great year for us and we had a great season,'' Fox said.

Delhomme made a remarkable recovery from Tommy John elbow surgery and the Panthers went 12-4 to win the NFC South. But an awful lot of that goes out the window when you lose like this and come up so short of expectations. That was apparent as the fans were booing Delhomme from the second quarter on.

"To look back and say we had a good season. I can't say that right now,'' said Delhomme, who completed 17 of 34 passes for 205 yards and finished with a 39.1 passer rating.

One thing about the Panthers is they've always stood by Delhomme. In the emotional aftermath of the loss, Fox stayed on that path.

"I think Jake's a hell of a quarterback who had a bad night,'' Fox said. "No, the sky's not falling.''

Fox is big on saying you don't make any judgments on performance until after you've seen the film.

It might be wise for Fox and the Panthers' brass to watch this film of Delhomme closely and ponder if it might be time for a change in the offseason. What good is it to have a receiver like Steve Smith if you can only get him two catches for 43 yards in a huge game?

But don't put all the blame for this one on Delhomme. Fox, who entered the game with a 5-2 postseason record, got totally outfoxed. Even before things got ugly, Fox and his staff made some questionable moves.

Although they seemed to be set up to play Fox football (run the ball and play good defense), they never did. Williams and Stewart combined for only nine carries in the first half and 15 for the game. In theory, defenses are supposed to pick their poison against the Panthers -- you try to shut down either Smith or the running game.

The Cardinals, who've never been confused with the 1985 Chicago Bears, shut down Smith and stuffed the running game and made it look easy. Arizona also made it look easy on offense, showing plenty of flaws in a Carolina defense that is supposed to be good.

It's also a Carolina defense that's coached by Fox -- who's supposed to be a defensive genius -- and Mike Trgovac. A lot of the blame should fall on their plan. Wouldn't it have been a good idea to have a defender in the vicinity of Larry Fitzgerald on occasion?

Fitzgerald finished with eight catches for 166 yards, including six catches for 151 yards in the first quarter.

"It's been a great season,'' Carolina defensive end Julius Peppers said. "We would have liked to have gone further and accomplished more goals, but it didn't happen. Next year, you've just got to see if you can get some of those things corrected and win the ultimate goal.''

Ah, next season. That's all that's left to talk about for the Panthers now. The expectations are going to be high once again. In that setting, doing what you're supposed to do is the only way to avoid disappointment.