Panthers Host Cardinals in NFC Championship

Sean Heffron previews the NFC Championship as the Carolina Panthers take on the Arizona Cardinals.

As the temperatures drop in Charlotte the heavyweight matchup between the number one and two seed in the NFC has only begun to heat up. The Arizona Cardinals and the Carolina Panthers are by far the best overall teams in the conference and this is the best possible matchup for the NFC championship game. Quarterbacks Cam Newton and Carson Palmer, both MVP finalists, command the number one and two offenses respectively  will battle it out against two of the best defenses in the entire league. With the Panthers surviving Seattle’s second half comeback effort and the Cardinals winning in overtime after Aaron Rodgers Hail Mary heave at the end of the fourth, both teams come into this game with a great sense of urgency. Sometimes when teams that get a first round bye and then blow out their opponent in the divisional round teams can come out flat in the Championship Game. Since Carolina and Arizona narrowly avoided upsets last week both teams will be on high alert from the opening kickoff. Carolina has a habit of coming out of the gate red hot and absolutely dominating the first and second quarter and most weeks that is enough to take their foot off the break in the second half. A few times this year including last week teams that weather the early Panther performance can make a second half comeback bid. Eli Manning nearly led a comeback after trailing 35-7, and a well coach and disciplined team like the Cardinals is built to withstand early momentum. Arizona is also known to get off to an early lead with their prolific offense that if allowed to find its rhythm is almost impossible to contain. It will be interesting to see which team is able to achieve that early lead, because despite conditions either team could build a sizable lead before halftime. If the cold temperature and condition of the field are significant enough to effect the game, Carolina is better built to withstand a sloppy field. Their offenses running game has been a stable for the Panthers all year and Cam Newton’s running ability can be a major asset if the passing game becomes difficult. However the Cardinals have also maintained a consistent rushing attack even when the running back who is featured has changed due to injury throughout the year.

Replacing Chris Johnson and Andre Ellington, rookie running back David Johnson has done a phenomenal job stepping in and being a factor in both the running and receiving game. Despite the pending conditions both quarterbacks posses such strong arms that the passing game should still be a major element of this game. Reminiscent of Arizona’s last playoff run, Larry Fitzgerald tore it up last week with 176 receiving yards and the 75 yard reception in overtime and late touchdown to seal the win for the Cardinals. But even if Josh Norman is able to take Palmer’s number one option in Fitzgerald the Arizona Cardinals have so many other receiving threats that he can rely on. Whether its John Brown, Michael Floyd, Jaron Brown, or any combination of running backs or tightends Carson Palmer has found the open man and consistently delivered huge performances throughout the season. Carson is facing an amazing defense with a passrush led by Kawann Short that was able to get to the elusive Russell Wilson last week. Palmer’s limited elusiveness will make him an easy target for the Panther’s front 7, if the offense cannot create a clean pocket. The Arizona Cardinals also boast an aggressive pass rush and they blitz more than any other team in the NFL. Cam Newton has been effective against the blitz this season, but Arizona’s secondary has been opportunist against errant throws in the face of pressure. This game comes down to which team is able come out the gate strong and build that early lead before halftime, and if they can withstand the second half push. If either team can establish a consistent running attack that will go a long way in shortening the game in the second half if they have that lead, because in this game you want the opposing team’s MVP quality quarterback on the sideline as much as possible. Whichever team can keep that quarterback upright and able to do what they have all season will be earning a trip to Santa Clara. 

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