TEMPE, Ariz. -- John Kasay was part of the early glory of the Carolina Panthers when they made the playoffs in just their second season in 1996. He was still around for the misery of a 1-15 record in 2001.
Kasay brought Carolina back to the postseason Sunday with a 49-yard field goal four seconds from the finish to give the Panthers a 20-17 victory over the Arizona Cardinals and the NFC South title.
"To watch how fast we rose, and then the battles we have had over the year to try to get back to this spot," Kasay said, "this is a special day."
Carolina (9-5) snapped a three-game losing streak to earn its second playoff berth.
"It's just been a bunch of good people doing their job well," coach John Fox said. "We haven't arrived yet, but we've sure made a lot of progress."
As usual, the Panthers won the hard way.
Eight of Carolina's 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.
"Are we playing our best football right now? Probably not," Carolina quarterback Jake Delhomme said. "But we still got the win, and that's an encouraging sign."
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.
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.
"We just saw what we had to work with and made the plays when we needed to," Smith said. "They were playing a lot of off coverage. They didn't want to get beat deep."
The Cardinals tried, but failed, to get pressure on Delhomme as the Panthers drove for the winning score.
"On that drive we blitzed six out of nine times," Arizona coach Dave McGinnis said. "We weren't going to let him just sit back there, but we didn't make the plays."
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.
"I tell you what, I like him," Minter said of McCown. "I told him after the game he's going to be a good quarterback. Why? Because he doesn't let bad things get him down. He came back and put two drives together with his legs and his arms. That shows me a lot about his character."
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. McCown had not played well in the brief times he had been on the field as a backup, but he was poised throughout this one.
"I hope that I showed that I managed the game and played well enough that people can have confidence in me," McCown said. "But the bottom line is you've got to win. That's my goal. That's what I want to change."
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 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 that one costly one interception.
He came back to direct 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.
After Delhomme fumbled the ball away on a hit by Fred Wakefield, 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.
Carolina drove to the Arizona 5, but couldn't punch it in, and Kasay's 21-yard field goal cut the lead to 14-10 with 6:04 left in the third quarter.
- Carolina lost starting center Jeff Mitchell with a groin pull midway through the third quarter.
- Security personnel had to fetch Arizona's Scott Player from the locker room to punt in the final seconds of the first half after he had left the field, thinking the half was over.
- Kasay missed three field goals and an extra point two weeks ago in a loss to Philadelphia.
- There were 23,217 tickets distributed but there weren't that many at the game in 73,000-seat Sun Devil Stadium.
The Associated Press News Service
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