Cardiac Cats is the nickname of the 2003 Carolina Panthers, who were known for close games often decided in the final minutes or the final play of the game. After finishing the season 11–5, the Panthers captured their first division title since 1996. They advanced to Super Bowl XXXVIII, but lost to the Patriots 32–29 after a last second field goal.
The Cardiac Cats played in five overtime games on the road during the season, winning four of them (an NFL record). This included a 2nd overtime victory over the Rams in the Divisional playoffs (in the fifth-longest game in NFL history). The team also tied an NFL record by winning seven games by 3 points or less, and led the NFL in comeback wins during the season.
Following a league worst 1–15 finish in 2001, in which the Panthers lost an NFL record fifteen consecutive games (six of which by 3 points or less), Panthers head coach George Seifert was fired and replaced by former New York Giants defensive coordinator John Fox. In 2002, Fox helped transform the Panthers defense from the second worst to the second best, and the team improved six games to finish the season 7–9. Following the season, Fox sought to improve the Panthers offense, drafting players such Jordan Gross at offensive tackle. In addition, quarterback Jake Delhomme, running back Stephen Davis, and wide receiver Ricky Proehl were signed to the Panthers in the off-season.
September 7 vs. Jacksonville JaguarsEdit
In the first game of the regular season, the Panthers hosted fellow 1995 expansion team Jacksonville, but fell behind 17–0 in the third quarter. At this point, starting quarterback Rodney Peete was replaced by ex-New Orleans Saint Jake Delhomme. Delhomme opened up with a 13-yard touchdown pass to Muhsin Muhammad. After a John Kasay field goal, the Panthers blocked a Jaguars punt for a safety. Delhomme then hit Steve Smith with a 24-yard touchdown pass, with a failed two-point conversion. The Jaguars then exploded on a 65-yard Mark Brunell touchdown pass to Jermaine Lewis, but their two-point try was stopped as well. The Jags' 5-point lead wouldn't hold as Delhomme found Ricky Proehl with sixteen seconds remaining, giving the panthers a 24–23 victory, and winning Delhomme a starting job at quarterback.
September 14 @ Tampa Bay BuccaneersEdit
In a battle of field goals, the Panthers clawed to a 9–3 lead, but the defending Super Bowl champions raced down field in the final minutes and Keenan McCardell caught a six-yard touchdown on the final play of regulation. The PAT would win the game for the Bucs, but the kick was blocked, and in the ensuing overtime the Panthers made the Bucs pay with John Kasay's fourth field goal of the game, and a 12–9 victory for the Panthers.
October 12 @ Indianapolis ColtsEdit
Indianapolis was a week removed from the Colts' historic 38–35 comeback win in Tampa Bay and raced to a 13–3 halftime lead, but Delhomme erased the gap on two third-quarter drives, highlighted by a 52-yard touchdown pass to Steve Smith. The Panthers clawed to a 20–13 lead but Peyton Manning drove the Colts down field in the final minutes; Reggie Wayne caught a 25-yard score with 44 seconds left in regulation, but in overtime the Panthers won the toss and never let the ball go as John Kasay finished it off after nearly six minutes of overtime with a 47-yard field goal, giving the Panthers a 23–20 overtime win.
October 26 @ New Orleans SaintsEdit
On the tenth anniversary of the official awarding of the Panthers franchise to Jerry Richardson, former Saint Delhomme led the Panthers to the Superdome. The Panthers rushed for 223 yards led by Stephen Davis' 178 yards and two touchdowns. The Saints, led by Deuce McAllister's 101 rushing yards, erased Panthers leads of 10–0, 17–13, and 20–17 to force overtime. But the Panthers drove down field and booted yet another Kasay field goal; this ended a 23–20 contest as the Panthers became the first team to ever win three straight overtime road games.
December 7 @ Atlanta FalconsEdit
After racing to an 8–2 record, the Panthers hit a wall with consecutive losses to Dallas and Philadelphia, falling to 8–4. At the Georgia Dome, the Panthers faced the 2–10 Falcons as Michael Vick made his return following injury. Vick exploded to 141 rushing yards to go with 179 passing yards, offsetting Delhomme's 153 passing yards and Stephen Davis' 81 rushing yards. Delhomme was picked off once and the Panthers could not finish it off in regulation as Vick's one-yard touchdown halfway through the fourth helped lead to overtime. After several punts the Panthers had the ball deep in their own territory, but Delhomme was picked off by Kevin Mathis at his 32 and Mathis ran in the winning touchdown, a 20–14 Falcons overtime win - the Panthers only overtime loss of the season.
December 14 @ Arizona CardinalsEdit
Now 8–5, and coming off three consecutive losses, the Panthers traveled to Arizona to face the three-win Cardinals. Quarterback Josh McCown was picked off by Mike Minter, who ran the ball back for a 35-yard Panthers touchdown. But the Cards put up a fight as McCown led a drive ending in his 16-yard touchdown run; then Emmitt Smith scored only his second touchdown of the year, putting Arizona up 14–7 at the half. John Kasay's field goal in the third quarter preceded another "Cardiac Cat" finish as Delhomme found DeShaun Foster for a 31-yard touchdown. Neil Rackers tied the game at 17 for the Cards on a 44-yard field goal just before the two-minute warning, then Delhomme clawed the Panthers in range for a 49-yard Kasay field goal with four seconds in regulation and a 20–17 slump-ending Panthers win.
January 10, 2004 @ St. Louis Rams, Divisional PlayoffsEdit
Coming off a 29–10 victory over Dallas in the Wild Card playoffs, the Panthers faced St. Louis in the divisional round. After Carolina jumped out to a 23–12 lead, St. Louis rallied back by scoring 11 points in the last 6 minutes to send the game into overtime. During the first possession of the first overtime period, the Panthers marched down to the Rams 22 yard line and kicker John Kasay made a 40-yard field goal that would have won the game, but the play was called back after a delay of game penalty. Kasay subsequently missed the 45-yard attempt wide right, and on the Rams ensuing possession, kicker Jeff Wilkins would attempt a 53-yard field goal. Unlike Kasay's, it was straight on, but it fell just inches short of the goalpost. On the first play of the second overtime period, and after Ricky Manning Jr. intercepted a Marc Bulger pass, Panthers QB Jake Delhomme threw a 69-yard touchdown pass to Steve Smith to give the Panthers a 29–23 win in the fifth-longest game in NFL history. This handed the Rams their first home loss in 14 games, and helped pave the way for Carolina's appearance in Super Bowl XXXVIII.
February 1, 2004 vs. New England Patriots, Super Bowl XXXVIIIEdit
At Super Bowl XXXVIII, neither team was able to put up points in the first quarter, and the game remained scoreless until near the end of the first half. However, 24 points were scored in the last 5 minutes of the first half, and the score going into halftime was 14–10 New England. The third quarter was also scoreless and it wasn't until late in the game that things heated up once again. The teams traded leads numerous times in the highest-scoring fourth quarter in Super Bowl history, including setting a record when Jake Delhomme hit Muhsin Muhammad for an 85-yard touchdown pass early in the fourth quarter. That pass made the score 22–21, Carolina and went down in the record books as the longest offensive play in Super Bowl history. After New England responded with a touchdown of their own and a 2-point conversion to make it 29–22, Carolina would storm right back to tie the game with a touchdown pass to Ricky Proehl with 1:08 left in regulation, opening the possibility to the first overtime game in Super Bowl history. However, John Kasay's kickoff went out of bounds, giving the Patriots the ball on their own 40-yard line. Adam Vinatieri, who had won Super Bowl XXXVI two years earlier on a last-second field goal, repeated his heroics, connecting on a 41-yarder with four seconds left, even though he had already missed two field goals in the game. This gave the Patriots their second Super Bowl win in three years.
Following the 2003 season and the Panthers loss in Super Bowl XXXVIII, the team is still referred to as the Cardiac Cats, usually when playing in close games.