CHARLOTTE — When Ken Lucas was called for a pivotal pass-interference penalty late in a loss to the New York Giants in Week 16, it marked the first and only such penalty for the Carolina Panthers all season.
It also didn't take long for this often-repeated snide response from cynical fans and skeptical analysts: How can you be called for interference when you're never close to the receiver?
Carolina's much maligned secondary better be in the vicinity of receivers Saturday when the Panthers (12-4) play their first playoff game in three seasons against the pass-happy Arizona Cardinals (10-7).
It'll be a rematch of an October game in Charlotte that saw Kurt Warner throw for 381 yards. It was the most yards passing given up by Carolina until the final week of the regular season, when the New Orleans Saints' Drew Brees torched the secondary for 386 yards.
The Panthers also allowed the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' Jeff Garcia to throw for 321 yards and the Green Bay Packers' Aaron Rodgers 298.
But in what's defined the Panthers' turnaround season, they found a way to win all four games.
As the Panthers enjoyed their third straight day away from the practice field Monday, defensive coordinator Mike Trgovac was preparing a game plan for the Cardinals' high-scoring offense that features numerous big-play threats and a cagey, accurate quarterback.
Warner's big day in Carolina's 27-23 win on Oct. 26 began a trend that has seen the Panthers give up at least 22 points in seven of their past nine games.
With a former defensive coordinator as a head coach and a history of success on that side of the ball, John Fox's Panthers have become a team that plays high-scoring games. The Panthers have won games by scores of 31-22, 35-31, 38-23 and 33-31 in the second half of the season by riding breakout running back DeAngelo Williams and Pro Bowl receiver Steve Smith.
Warner, 37, threw for 271 yards and two touchdowns in Arizona's 30-24 home win over the Atlanta Falcons on Saturday while the Panthers enjoyed a first-round bye.
The Atlanta win featured a spectacular 42-yard touchdown catch in double-coverage by Larry Fitzgerald, the 6-foot-3 receiver who had seven catches for 115 yards against Carolina.
Anquan Boldin, who caught two TD passes against Carolina, had a 71-yard touchdown catch against Atlanta, but injured his left hamstring on the play. It's uncertain if he'll play this week.
The Cards are a pass-first team, meaning Panthers cornerbacks Lucas, Chris Gamble and Richard Marshall and safeties Chris Harris and rookie Charles Godfrey will be tested -- often.
Lucas has become the target of opposing teams. Criticized for playing too far off receivers, Lucas has struggled to contain big receivers. Gamble has had one of his best seasons but has dropped numerous potential interceptions. Marshall, the nickel back, has struggled with his tackling. Godfrey, who has done an adequate job as a rookie starter, still makes occasional assignment mistakes. Harris, who had an NFL-high eight forced fumbles last season, had two this season and none since Week 2.
The secondary would be helped if the Panthers can get pressure on Warner. Backup defensive end Charles Johnson had two sacks in the first meeting, but Carolina was frustrated by Warner's quick release. Julius Peppers, who had a career-best 14 1/2 sacks this season, was held to one quarterback hurry.
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