Originally created 12/15/03

Panthers clinch NFC South

TEMPE, Ariz. -- The Carolina Panthers never win anything easily, and that includes the NFC South title they finally clinched Sunday.

John Kasay kicked a 49-yard field goal with 4 seconds to play to give the Panthers a 20-17 victory over the Arizona Cardinals.

Carolina (9-5) snapped a three-game losing streak to earn a playoff berth for the second time in the franchise's history and first since 1996.

Eight of the Panthers' victories have come in the final two minutes or in overtime. Carolina tied an NFL record with its seventh win by three points or less this season - the Cardinals did it in 1998.

Arizona's Neil Rackers, who missed a 35-yard field goal early in the fourth quarter, kicked a 44-yarder with 1:15 to play to tie it at 17-all.

Jake Delhomme, who completed 20 of 32 passes for 236 yards, connected with Steve Smith five times for 41 yards in a 13-play, 44-yard drive to set up the winning field goal.

Second-year quarterback Josh McCown, in his first NFL start, had his first pass returned 35 yards by Mike Minter for a touchdown, then regrouped to direct two time-consuming TD drives and Arizona (3-11) led 14-7 at the half.

McCown scored on a 16-yard run and Emmitt Smith ran 4 yards for his first home touchdown of the season for Arizona, which lost its sixth in a row.

Delhomme moved the Panthers 93 yards in nine plays, capped by a 31-yard touchdown pass to DeShaun Foster, to put Carolina up 17-14 with 11:29 to go.

Initially, officials ruled he was stopped just outside the goal line. But coach John Fox challenged, and after a review it was ruled a touchdown.

McCown, starting in place of Jeff Blake, completed 14 of 25 for 172 yards with one interception.

After an early exchange of turnovers, Carolina scored first when Al Wallace hit McCown as he threw, and the ball flew directly into the arms of Minter who returned it for the TD.

McCown was shaken, though. He directed an 80-yard, 10-play TD drive and accounted for the final 31 yards in two plays.

On third-and-12 from the Carolina 31, McCown gained 15 on a quarterback draw, then rolled right and scored on the next play to tie it at 7-7 with 37 seconds left in the first quarter.

The Panthers drove to the Arizona 36 on their next possession, but Fred Wakefield hit Delhomme as he went back to throw. The quarterback fumbled, and Levar Woods recovered for the Cardinals at the 41.

Despite a holding penalty, Arizona went 59 yards in 10 plays, consuming 7:02. Smith's second touchdown put the Cardinals up 14-7 with 6:04 left in the half.

Delhomme's 35-yard pass to Smith, and a 15-yard facemask penalty on Dexter Jackson helped Carolina move to the Arizona eight. Davis gained 5 yards on two plays. On third-and-goal from the 3, Delhomme's pass to Ricky Proehl was ruled out of bounds, and Kasay's 21-yard field goal cut the lead to 14-10 with 6:04 left in the third quarter.

Arizona held Stephen Davis to 48 yards in 13 carries. The Cardinals' Marcel Shipp rushed for 89 yards in 23 attempts.


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