For the second straight week, cornerback Cortland Finnegan is a key player for the Carolina Panthers. Last week, Finnegan had the responsibility of slowing down the Seattle Seahawks' Doug Baldwin and he will have an equally tough challenge slowing down Larry Fitzgerald this week. The Arizona Cardinals typically line up Fitzgerald in the slot and while Josh Norman is the Panthers' best cornerback, he only has played on the outside.
The veteran cornerback played well enough to limit Baldwin's production, with only three receptions and 38 receiving yards. He did have one touchdown catch in the second half. Meanwhile, Finnegan did make a key play with an interception when Russell Wilson under threw his receiver in the first half.
The Panthers' secondary has been hit hard by injury and the defense is going to need a strong game from Finnegan if they want to try and slow down one of the best passing attacks in the league.
Another way to slow the Cardinals' passing game would be to get pressure on Carson Palmer and not give him time in the pocket. Unlike last week, Panthers' won't need to worry about the quarterback leaving the pocket as Palmer is not as mobile as Russell Wilson.
The Panthers though have questions at the defensive end position as Jared Allen is dealing with a broken bone in his foot. He was able to practice on Thursday but on a limited basis. It remains to be seen just how much Allen can play Sunday, if at all.
This should mean an increase in playing time for Kony Ealy. The second-year defensive end has five sacks on the year however all five sacks came in a five week stretch, with the last one being on Thanksgiving against the Dallas Cowboys.
This defense has not gotten much production from the defensive end position in terms of sacks recently. Since Week 13, the Panthers' top three pass rushers (Charles Johnson, Jared Allen and Kony Ealy) has registered only one sack, and it was last week by Johnson.
If Ealy can jump start the pass rush, the Panthers have an excellent job of slowing down Palmer and this Cardinals' passing attack.
There are a number of questions on the defensive side of the ball and this game could be shaping up to be a shoot-out. If that is the case, the Panthers' are going to need Cam Newton to put up points and more importantly do it over four quarters.
This game pits the top two scoring offenses this year with the Panthers' finishing the regular season as the highest scoring offense in the league with 31.3 points and the Cardinals not far behind at 30.6 points.
Newton has become one of the most dynamic players in the NFL because he is able to beat defenses through the air as well as on the ground. He led the league in total touchdowns with 45, 10 of which were rushing, and has become the leader of this offense.
The offense will be looking to him in this big game; however Newton is no stranger to big games. He led the Auburn Tigers to a National Championship in his final season in college and played well with over 300 total yards (265 passing yards, 64 rushing yards) and two touchdowns. This is Newton's biggest game in the NFL and the Panthers are going to need another MVP-type performance.