The Carolina Panthers are moving on in the playoffs after the most suffocating defensive performance in NFL postseason history.
The Panthers harassed Arizona third-string quarterback Ryan Lindley all game Saturday and held the Cardinals under 100 yards in a dominant 27-16 victory on a wet, misty evening at Bank of America Stadium.
The Panthers (8-8-1) will travel to either No. 1 seed Seattle or second seed Green Bay in the divisional round, depending on the outcome of Sunday’s other NFC wild-card game. If Dallas beats Detroit, the Panthers will face the Seahawks.
If Detroit upsets the Cowboys, the Panthers will head north to Green Bay.
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It will be tough for the Panthers to top their defensive showing from Saturday.
With Lindley getting the start after injuries to No. 1 quarterback Carson Palmer and backup Drew Stanton, the Panthers held Arizona (11-6) to 78 yards, the fewest ever in a postseason game.
The previous record was held by the Cleveland Browns, who had 86 yards in playoff loss to the Giants on Dec. 21, 1958.
Panthers coach Ron Rivera said the Panthers caught the Cardinals at a good time, facing a quarterback who carried a 1-5 career record into the game.
But Panthers strong safety Roman Harper had a different spin after the historic effort.
“Maybe they caught us at a bad time. This team is playing better now than we’ve played all year long,” Harper said. “Of course, we still had some dumb mistakes. Why? We’re Carolina, we like to keep it close again. I’m just really happy about this team and how we’re playing. We’re coming together at the right time, and we’re making plays, man.”
The Panthers joined the 2010 Seattle Seahawks as the only teams in NFL history to win their division with a losing record and host a playoff game. Like those Seahawks, the Panthers advanced behind a defense that sacked Lindley four times and intercepted him twice.
Carolina racked up 386 yards and 25 first downs, the most in its playoff history, while limiting the Cardinals to 8 first downs.
Arizona had 97 yards before losing 19 on the final play when they had multiple laterals and ended up going backward.
It was the fewest yards allowed in any NFL game – playoffs or otherwise – since San Diego held Kansas City, quarterbacked by Brodie Croyle, to 67 yards in the Chargers’ 31-0 win on Dec. 12, 2010, according to Stats LLC.
The Chargers’ defensive coordinator that day? Rivera.
“It’s great, it really is. Our guys played really well,” Rivera said. “We were fortunate. Like I said, we caught them at a good time. ”
Defensive end Charles Johnson said he didn’t know the Panthers had broken the postseason yardage record until a reporter told him.
“The first thing that came to my mind, really, is it should have been less than that, really,” Johnson said. “We left plays out there.”
It was the Panthers’ first playoff victory since a divisional-round win against Chicago on Jan. 15, 2006, and the victory avenged a 33-13 defeat to Arizona in the divisional round on Jan. 10, 2009.
With the Panthers trailing 14-13, momentum changed with a seemingly innocuous decision by Rivera to punt in Cardinals’ territory midway through the third quarter rather than let Graham Gano try a 55-yard field goal.
Brad Nortman pinned the Cards at their 8, and after a three-and-out, another poor punt by the Cardinals’ Drew Butler gave the Panthers possession at the Arizona 39.
On first down, seldom-used running back Fozzy Whittaker took a swing pass from Cam Newton, changed directions and sprinted in for a 39-yard touchdown to put the Panthers up 20-14 with 5:36 left in the third quarter.
Former Panthers return specialist Ted Ginn fumbled after bringing the ensuing kickoff out from 8 yards deep in the end zone. Melvin White caused the fumble, and former North Carolina linebacker Kevin Reddick recovered at the Cardinals’ 4.
A pass interference penalty on safety Tony Jefferson against tight end Greg Olsen gave the Panthers first-and-goal at the 1. And Newton’s 1-yard pass to fullback tight end Mike Tolbert increased the lead to 27-14 with 4:04 remaining in the third quarter.
It was two touchdowns in a span of one minute, 32 seconds, and the Panthers never looked back.
Rivera said he thought about going for the first down or letting Gano try the field goal in the third quarter, but decided to play the field-position game given the way his defense was throttling the Cardinals.
“I thought if we can just get them pinned down there and get the ball back without giving up a first down, we would be in great field position again,” Rivera said.
The Panthers were far from perfect in the other phases.
Newton had an interception and a fumble. The Cardinals’ 80 yards in returns after the takeaways were more than their offense managed all game.
“That’s playoff football. That’s championship football right there,” said Newton, who completed 18 of 32 passes for 198 yards and two touchdowns. “We’ve got to do our part offensively.”
Jonathan Stewart’s 13-yard touchdown run put the Panthers up 10-0 with 5:21 left in the first quarter, and Carolina appeared to have all the momentum.
But they gave it up with two turnovers and a costly penalty, allowing the Cards to take a 14-13 halftime lead despite being outgained 208 to 65 in total yardage in the first half.
But after the two scores in short succession in the third quarter, the Panthers went after Lindley – with Johnson sacking him on consecutive plays in one fourth-quarter sequence.
“I don’t think he was nervous. I think he was well-prepared,” said middle linebacker Luke Kuechly, who intercepted Lindley one play after Newton’s second-half fumble. “But any time guys are up in his face, stepping on his feet, hitting him, bumping him, he can’t follow through on his throws, it makes his job difficult.”
Arizona veteran wideout Larry Fitzgerald said Kuechly and outside linebacker Thomas Davis were the keys to the Panthers’ defensive shutdown.
“Those guys were running around making plays in the passing game and making plays in the running game,” Fitzgerald said. “We weren’t able to get the running game going. When you’re one-dimensional and have to throw the football and you get behind, it’s tough to succeed in this league.”
Harper said breaking a 56-year-old record is remarkable – at least until next week.
“I don’t even think my dad’s 56. It’s crazy to think of something like that and say we did something like that. It was great,” Harper said. “But we’ve got to put it behind us. Nobody cares about that by next week.”