TEMPE, Ariz. -- For an NFL team one victory shy of clinching a playoff berth - but on a three-game losing streak - a December trip to Arizona would seem the perfect prescription.
The Cardinals have lost five in a row, are giving a second-year quarterback his first NFL start and were clobbered at San Francisco 50-14 last Sunday.
Still, in the unpredictable world of today's NFL, Carolina coach John Fox and his players were saying all the right things as they prepared to face the 3-10 Cardinals in front of 50,000 empty seats on Sunday.
"In this league, anything happens, and you better be ready to play," Fox said.
The Panthers (8-5) still lead the NFC South by two games, but are coming off consecutive losses to Dallas, Philadelphia and Atlanta.
A victory over Arizona would clinch the division title and Carolina's second playoff berth in franchise history. Their only other appearance came in 1996, the team's second season.
"It's a big game for us. We need to play well," Panthers wide receiver Muhsin Muhammad said. "We need to have some confidence going into the postseason. This is a very important game for us, a very important step for us going into a playoff situation."
Cardinals second-year quarterback Josh McCown will get his first NFL start, not because he's been impressive in practice or because Jeff Blake has been awful.
Arizona's front office wants an extended look at the youngster as it weighs whether to go after a franchise quarterback in next year's draft.
McCown, who threw his first two NFL touchdown passes in mop-up duty last Sunday, knows the Panthers will be coming after him.
"I'm sure they'll be coming and trying to take advantage of my youth," he said.
To make matters more difficult, McCown will be behind a new starting center, Frank Garcia, after Pete Kendall was lost for the season with a shoulder injury.
Fox has studied McCown's play when the youngster came in late in games.
"He is a very mobile guy," Fox said. "At one point, they thought he was going to be the incumbent when they lost Jake Plummer. So he's a guy that is very capable. We don't have a lot of evidence, but we have evidence enough to prepare for him."
Unless he's injured, McCown will stay in the game, Arizona coach Dave McGinnis said.
"I've never been one in this league to be afraid to make decisions and stand by them," McGinnis said. "You have to have the strength of your convictions in this league, especially when you sit in this chair. It is the correct thing to do."
McGinnis probably won't be sitting in that chair much longer. The highly likable coach has seen his team's record grow worse in each of his three full seasons.
"You don't get in this business if you are concerned about your future," McGinnis said. "I'm concerned about the game this week. Believe me, I love this league. I love what I do. I respect and love this league for what it stands for. You don't ever get in this business worried about your security. You get in this business for the thrill of putting something together and the competition."
The Cardinals expect to see a steady dose of running back Stephen Davis, a player they know all too well from his days with Washington when Arizona was in the NFC East.
"You know, he's probably the top back in the NFC," linebacker Levar Woods said. "He's a big, bruising back, but he won't hesitate to try and outrun somebody. I've seen him outrun corners on film."
If the running game clicks, Jake Delhomme will go with play-action passes against a defense that surrendered 264 yards through the air and 232 yards on the ground in San Francisco.
While Arizona has been pitiful on the road, the Cardinals have played well before the sparse crowds at home. They beat Green Bay, San Francisco and Cincinnati, and their latest home game was a 30-27 overtime loss to St. Louis on Nov. 23.
Even last week's 36-point loss to the 49ers may be a reason to worry about the Cardinals, Fox insisted.
"When you come off a loss like that, everybody in this league has pride, so I expect them to bounce back," he said. "They are 3-3 at home. That's where we play this week. We're not in a position to be taking anybody lightly."
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