Instead the Cardinals are a victory away from their first Super Bowl appearance -- with a big assist from Jake Delhomme and the bumbling Carolina Panthers.
Formerly discarded quarterback Kurt Warner was steady in a 33-13 rout of the Panthers Saturday night, throwing two touchdown passes, while Delhomme threw five interceptions and lost a fumble.
The target of jokes for years with their history of ineptitude, 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 (11-8) 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.
Instead, Delhomme turned in a brutal performance 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 Super Bowl XXXVII 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.
The Cardinals' defense stopped Carolina's potent running game, too. A week after shutting down Atlanta's Michael Turner, DeAngelo Williams was held to 63 yards.
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, Warner, 37, has another team on the brink of a most unlikely title. Warner connected with receiver Larry Fitzgerald eight times for a team playoff-record 166 yards.