CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The Arizona Cardinals were considered the softest team in the playoffs, unable to win far from home and carrying the scars of years of ineptitude.
But behind their cagey quarterback, dynamic receiver, improved defense -- and a big assist from Jake Delhomme's horrible night -- the Cardinals are a win away from the unthinkable: a berth in the Super Bowl.
A team that had won only two playoff games in their history before last week's win over Atlanta, 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.
"Not many people had very nice things to say about us and didn't give us a chance," said Ken Whisenhunt, the second-year coach who has helped shed the losing culture of the franchise. "I think we've showed we can come to the East Coast and win a game. ... We believe in ourselves. I like being the underdog, and we're going to continue to be the underdog."
Arizona will either play at the New York Giants or host Philadelphia in the NFC Championship Game Jan. 18.
"I'm putting on my Philly hat right now," said Fitzgerald, who had a 29-yard touchdown catch in a dominant first half. "We would love to have a home game."
While the Cardinals proved they're for real, they also must thank Delhomme, who threw five interceptions and lost a fumble 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. His woes made Steve Smith a non-factor. The Pro Bowl receiver didn't have his first catch until the final minute of the third quarter.
"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."
Smith caught a meaningless 8-yard touchdown pass from Delhomme with 50 seconds left, when the Cardinals were celebrating.
"It's a group of guys that put their mind to going out and playing great football," said Warner, who completed 21 of 32 passes for 220 yards and an interception. "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."
Arizona had been embarrassed when it ventured far from home, but the closest it came was a 27-23 loss here 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, Fitzgerald more than made up for the loss. The 6-foot-3 receiver set a team playoff-record for yards receiving while shredding the Panthers' leaky secondary.
"We didn't do anything, and you know before you go on the field that if you don't play well, you are going home," said Panthers defensive end Julius Peppers, an unrestricted free agent who declined to say whether he wanted to return. "It didn't happen for us today and we've got a long time to think about it."
While Delhomme's struggles paralyzed the Carolina's offense, the Cardinals stopped the Panthers' potent running game, too. A week after shutting down Atlanta's Michael Turner, DeAngelo Williams was held to 63 yards in 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.
"We picked a bad day to have a bad day," coach John Fox said.
Instead, Warner stole the stage. A decade after his storybook MVP season in winning the Super Bowl with St. Louis a year after he was teammates with Delhomme in NFL Europe, the 37-year-old Warner has another team on the brink of a most unlikely title after being let go by the Rams five years ago.
And it was a stunningly ugly performance by Delhomme.
Entering with a 5-2 postseason record, Delhomme's 95.0 playoff passer rating coming in was better than any other quarterback in this season's playoffs.
But Delhomme threw two interceptions and lost a fumble in the first half, making poor reads, holding the ball too long and giving the Cardinals great field position.
Defensive end Antonio Smith stripped Delhomme and recovered the ball at the Carolina 13 late in the first quarter. Two plays later, Edgerrin James' 4-yard touchdown put the Cardinals ahead to stay 14-7.
Delhomme started hearing boos when he was intercepted by Gerald Hayes midway through the second quarter. Warner turned that into another touchdown, finding a streaking Fitzgerald for a stunning 27-7 halftime lead that silenced the once towel-waving crowd.
It was a horrible performance for the Panthers in front of their ailing owner. Jerry Richardson visited with Smith on the field before the game before watching from a suite as he awaits a heart transplant that's limited his daily activities and halted his travel on the road with the team.
The Panthers played like a dominant home team for only the opening drive. Williams had a 31-yard run, setting up rookie Jonathan Stewart's 9-yard touchdown scamper for a 7-0 lead.
Arizona took over from there.
"We've been the underdog forever," Antonio Smith said. "It's about time that we proved to everybody what we got."
Fitzgerald broke Roy Green's playoff yards receiving record of 113 set in the 1982 playoffs. ... Cardinals TE Stephen Spach left in the fourth quarter with a sprained right knee. ... Panthers reserve LB Landon Johnson was carted off the field with a hip injury late in the first half when he was inadvertently hit by teammate Jon Beason on a tackle.
- Gene Steratore