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 CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) -Carolina and Arizona used to be two of the more desirable places for NFL teams to visit.
No need to practice with pumped-in noise before these trips. No silent snap counts required here. Instead, opposing players would see and hear thousands of transplanted fans rooting for them, and more often than not leave with a road victory.
Not anymore.
Sure, the opposing jerseys still litter the stands, but the home fans have drowned out their noise. The Panthers (5-2) and Cardinals (4-2) have become contenders by going a combined 7-0 at home this season, giving host Carolina the edge as the two teams meet Sunday in an unlikely showdown of NFC division leaders positioning themselves to end playoff droughts.
ities of Charlotte and Phoenix.
``I think it's important that we're kind of establishing, much like what they face in Carolina, getting a number of transplanted fans behind us,'' Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt said. ``That's always tough and the only way you can do that is to win some games, and we've been lucky and won some.''
The NFC West-leading Cardinals, who haven't reached the playoffs since 1998, were off last week following a thrilling 30-24 home win over Dallas on Oct. 12. After blowing a late lead, Arizona became the first NFL team to win a regular-season overtime game on a blocked punt returned for a touchdown, improving to 3-0 at home.
``We've been very good in our new building,'' said quarterback Kurt Warner, who ranks third in the NFL with a 102.8 passer rating. ``I don't think you can overstate enough what a home-field advantage means to a football team. We're excited that we're developing one here in Arizona.''
With receiver Anquan Boldin hoping to return Sunday, three weeks after surgery to repair facial fractures, Warner would have another option in an offense that's averaging an NFL-best 29.5 points per game.
Trouble is, Arizona carries a 1-2 road mark to Carolina, which is no longer the place visiting teams go to get well.
four straight home openers. Last year the Panthers went 2-6 at home in a miserable 7-9 season played mostly without quarterback Jake Delhomme.
This year, Bank of America Stadium is suddenly an intimidating place. Buoyed by Delhomme's return from elbow surgery and a dominant defense, Carolina is 4-0 at home, winning the last three by a combined 88-16.
``When you're losing it's going to be tough, regardless,'' cornerback Richard Marshall said. ``This year our fans have been great. Our fans have been making a lot of noise for us when their offense is on the field and that's been helping us out a lot.''
The Panthers enter the weekend tied with Tampa Bay for the NFC South lead as they try to end a two-year absence from the postseason.
And for Delhomme, it's a new feeling after home games, not having to try to avoid family and friends. Even when the Panthers reached the NFC championship game in 2005, they were better on the road (6-2) than at home (5-3).
``We are playing better football and we are a more rounded team. That is the big thing,'' Delhomme said. ``But certainly it has been nice. We have played some decent football at home and certainly the support has been outstanding. That is something that can't get overlooked. When the crowd can get into it, I know as an offense when you try to make calls it's loud and it's tough. Our crowd has been loud and they have helped our defense.''
ould spell trouble for Arizona, which hasn't been able to carry its success at University of Phoenix Stadium to the road. Whisenhunt's decision to keep the team on the East Coast for consecutive home games backfired last month when the Cardinals lost to Washington and the New York Jets.
And Warner knows to end the skepticism that they're still the same old, losing Cardinals, they'll have to find a way to win on the road. Knocking off Carolina and moving to 5-2 could squash some of those doubts.
``I think that is the next step for this organization and this team is to figure out a way to win on the road,'' Warner said. ``To feel like not only can we beat anyone at home, but to feel like we can beat anyone anywhere in the NFL. I don't know what it's going to take.''
On Sunday, they'll have to crack one of the league's best defenses. Last week, New Orleans came to Charlotte with the NFL's second-rated offense and top passing game. Drew Brees, hounded all day by defensive end Julius Peppers, was held to 231 yards passing, no touchdowns and an interception in Carolina's 30-7 rout.
Carolina, third in the NFL in scoring defense at 14.9 points per game, now faces the rejuvenated Warner and a receiving corps that includes Larry Fitzgerald, the surprising Steve Breaston and perhaps Boldin.
shutouts.''
Three weeks ago, Carolina blanked Kansas City, and the Panthers have allowed three offensive touchdowns in the past 17 quarters. On Sunday they play their fourth home game in five weeks, looking to continue a turnaround that's produced an unlikely sight in Carolina: a legitimate home-field edge.
``This season just feels different,'' Marshall said. ``Us going to San Diego for that first game and pulling out a big victory and then coming back home and winning against Chicago, it just feels different as a whole season thus far. It's not just the home games, it's the season, period.''
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