The Panthers meanwhile lost six straight at one point in the season and went 1-9-1 from Week 3 to Week 13. However they won their final four games to clinch their second straight playoff appearance to set up this matchup with Arizona. These are three key matchups that could decide who moves on in the playoffs and which team’s season comes to an end.
Ryan Lindley vs. Panthers’ Defense
The Arizona Cardinals have struggled to keep a quarterback healthy and have had three quarterbacks start for them over the course of the season. Carson Palmer started the year as the team’s quarterback but suffered an ACL tear in Week 10 against St. Louis and was replaced by Drew Stanton. The back-up quarterback started five games for the Cardinals before suffering a partial torn ACL of his own against St. Louis in Week 14.
This left the Cardinals with Ryan Lindley, who started the final two games of the season, and looks likely to start the playoff game on Saturday. The third-year quarterback from San Diego State is coming off his best game of the season, throwing for 316 yards and two touchdowns against the San Francisco 49ers.
The one blemish from that game, and this is what the Panthers’ defense will need to capitalize on, is Lindley’s inability to protect the football. He threw three interceptions against the 49ers and had another one against the Seahawks in Week 16.
The Panthers meanwhile have done a good job of forcing turnovers over the four-game win streak. They have won the turnover battle each of the past four weeks and forced at least two turnovers each game. Against the Falcons last week, the defense had three turnovers (two interceptions, one fumble) and returned both interceptions for touchdowns.
If Carolina is able to force Lindley and the Cardinals offense to turn the ball over, it will put the Panthers in an excellent position to win the game.
Panthers’ Rushing Attack vs. Cardinals Run Defense
This matchup is the strength of an offense versus the strength of a defense. The Panthers offense has looked much stronger thanks to their run game. The past four weeks the Panthers have run for an average of 206.25 yards per game, which is much higher than the 100.91 average they had over the first 12 games.
The Cardinals meanwhile have a run defense that ranks 13th in the NFL, holding opponents to 108.7 yards per game. However, they have struggled the last two weeks of the season giving up 267 yards to Seattle in Week 16 and 206 to San Francisco last week. To be fair these two teams rank first (Seattle) and fourth (San Francisco) in the NFL in rushing offense and no defense has been able to slow down either much this year. This is certainly one matchup worth watching to see which team can impose their dominance on the ground.
Brad Nortman vs. Drew Butler
There is a good chance this game could end up being a ground-it-out, low scoring affair and field position could be a major deciding factor. It is hard to imagine that punters could decide the outcome of the game but that could possibly be the case for Brad Nortman and Drew Butler.
It is hard to pick which team has an advantage since both players have had similar seasons by looking at the stats:
The Cardinals do have an advantage in terms of their punt returner as Ted Ginn has proven to be very dangerous when returning kicks. There will certainly be more pressure on Nortman to not only get distance on his punts but try and pin Ginn along the sidelines.
If both teams struggle to move the ball, it could come down to whichever punter performs better that will decide the outcome of this game.