Championship Sunday is almost here and the Panthers are set to host the franchise’s first ever NFC Championship game against the two seeded Arizona Cardinals.
The Panthers met the Cardinals last year in the Wild Card Round and took care of them fairly easily. This time around things will look much different as Arizona now has a healthy Carson Palmer at quarterback and boasts an all-around, championship quality team looking to knock off the top seed.
This season the Panthers haven’t faced a team quite like the Cardinals with such a dangerous attack both offensively and defensively and a coach as well prepared as Bruce Arians. However, Carolina had quite a performance of their own last week and has been as dominant a team as this league has seen all game long and certainly has the potential to grapple with this Arizona squad and even take them down on their home turf.
With storylines abound in this highly anticipated NFC title matchup, there’s plenty to watch for in Charlotte come Sunday night.
Panthers’ DBs vs. Cardinals’ WRs
The biggest key to this game and the matchup that will have the eye of a multitude of viewers is the battle that Carolina’s defensive backs will have against one of the most threatening receiving corps in the league. Arizona boasts a trio of receivers that each possesses a unique skillset that can wreak havoc on opposing defenses and helped the Cardinals become the second ranked passing offense this season. Larry Fitzgerald is the veteran slot presence who enjoyed one of his best seasons as a pro and has the ability to completely take over a game. Michael Floyd is a perfect mix of size and speed on the outside and has proven he can make plays against the best corners while second-year player John Brown has proven himself as one of the fastest deep threats in the league, capable to blowing by any secondary.
For the Panthers, the secondary is the weakest part of a quite formidable defense that ranks among the middle of the pack in passing yards allowed (11th; 234.5-ypg). Josh Norman has been elite on the outside meaning he’ll likely see a lot of Floyd and Brown leaving the aging veterans Robert McClain and Cortland Finnegan to deal with the big X-factor in Fitzgerald. Safety Kurt Coleman has been a ball-hawk all season long with eight interceptions but has been exposed at times in coverage. Linebacker Luke Kuechly has done well in coverage lately and should be used frequently this week as help. With the Cardinals likely to target whoever Norman isn’t lined up on, it’ll be a real test for the others in the secondary to stop Carson Palmer and this dangerous receiving corps and how they perform could be a game-changer.
Cam & Carson: First Time QBs
This NFC Championship Round will feature two MVP-caliber quarterbacks in Cam Newton and Palmer who share quite a few similarities with each other. For starters, both quarterbacks won the Heisman trophy in college and each went first overall in the draft. But a lesser known fact is the overall playoff inexperience of the two. Newton is 2-2 in four appearances while Palmer is won his first postseason contest last week making him just 1-2. This happens also to be the first Title game each has ever been to.
The pressure of the big game is one thing that has haunted even the best quarterbacks and something that could certainly be a factor here. Last week, Palmer was not the same quarterback the Cardinals saw lead them to victory 13 times this year has he was overthrowing receivers and was forced into more than a few questionable throws. Of course he came through in crunch time but his level of play has certainly seen a drop in the playoffs. Newton didn’t have his greatest game either last week and hasn’t been anything tremendous in the other appearances he’s been in but seems to have a much calmer demeanor about him, even with a poor second half last week. Of course there are plenty of other factors that go into quarterback play but the attitude and confidence that these two MVP contenders will certainly be something to keep an eye on in this matchup between the NFC’s best.
A good pass rush can help you get away with a lot on defense as many teams have shown in the past and for Carolina against Arizona they’ll need to see an excellent showing from their defensive front. Last week against Seattle, the Panthers’ defensive line did a tremendous job of getting pressure on Russell Wilson and logged five sacks and 14 quarterback hits. But they did much more than what was displayed on the stat sheet as they continuously dominated the opposing offensive line and caused two turnovers that led to 10 Carolina points and versus the Cardinals prolific passing attack they’ll need a similar effort.
Arizona gave up just 27 sacks on the year, good for fourth best, but hasn’t been as solid of as unit as of late. Last week against Green Bay, the Packers got plenty of solid pressure on Palmer and disrupted him quite often, forcing errant throws and bad decisions. For the Panthers, a key to beating the pass game and helping the aforementioned weaker secondary, they’ll need a strong showing up front. The Panthers boast a pair of top defensive tackles in Kawann Short and Star Lotulelei and need pass rushers Charles Johnson and Kony Ealy to do some damage on the edge. Against Seattle, Wilson could escape and extend plays with his legs and did some damage with them in the second half while Arizona’s Palmer is not nearly as mobile and could be rattled even easier than Wilson. The loss of Jared Allen may be overblown a tad, even with a solid game last week, but this group must step up and pressure the Cardinals to help out the entire defense and give Carolina the edge.