Why the Cardinals will win: They have a much better chance if WR Anquan Boldin's sore left hamstring allows him to play, and play effectively, on what may be a wet field. Without him, the Arizona attack doesn't have nearly as much firepower, though the Cardinals curiously have been incorporating RB Edgerrin James into the game plan more. QB Kurt Warner needs to have a big day. But with the focus on their offense, the Cardinals need their defense, particularly the front line, to step up. It did last weekend, holding Atlanta RB Michael Turner to 42 yards, but it has double trouble this weekend with Carolina's duo of DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart. The Cardinals also have to shut down Panthers WR Steve Smith. And they need to overcome the mental matters of playing in the East. They are 0-5 in the East this season and have been outscored 202-102.
Why the Panthers will win: They're healthy and rested after the bye week, and they're hungry to build on their franchise-record-tying 12-4 regular season. QB Jake Delhomme doesn't get much attention, but his postseason passer rating, 95.0, is third-best all time — behind Bart Starr and Joe Montana — and he has played better as the season has gone on. The homefield is already an advantage. The Panthers went 8-0 at home (and outscored opponents 234-111), and their home advantage may be bigger for their first home playoff game in five years after the cheerleading Charlotte Observer's Friday front-page photo of Bank of America Stadium and headline: "Will We Fill It With Noise?" Plus, their defense, though exposed repeatedly in the second half of the regular season, features the one-man wrecking crew known as Julius Peppers, who had a career-best 14.5 sacks. Also, DEs Maake Kemoeatu and Damione Lewis are back in the lineup.
Matchup to watch: Arizona QB Kurt Warner vs. the Panthers' pass rush. The Panthers want to come hard after Warner early to keep him from getting into a rhythm, but if Warner is savvy enough to take advantage of their aggressiveness, he could have the edge.
Quotable: "I think it will be great. The Monday night game (against Tampa Bay this season) was electric. Our home game in the 2003 playoffs was a Saturday night game, and it was the same way. It was a pretty festive atmosphere, and I would anticipate (tonight) will be the same way." — Panthers QB Jake Delhomme, on playing at night.
60 Percent chance of rain tonight, which should favor the Panthers; they keep the ball on the ground more.
Stephen F. Holder's pick: Panthers 31, Cardinals 20
Marc Topkin, Times staff writer