Cam Newton was nothing short of Superman once again as he led his high powered offense to a commanding victory over the Cardinals in only a way Cam could do. The Panthers’ quarterback engineered scoring drives on the team’s first three possessions and never looked back. Newton threw for 335-yards on just 19 completions, two of which went for scores. He also had quite a day on the ground as well rushing for 47-yards and two more scores which included a slew of runs that only one quarterback in the league can pull off. Newton’s performance marked the fourth time that a quarterback has thrown and rushed for multiple scores in the postseason and stands alone as the only player with 300+ passing yards and two rushing touchdowns. Newton found open receivers all day long and when he needed to, gashed Arizona with his legs marking a performance he won’t soon forget as he heads to Super Bowl 50.
It flew somewhat under the radar, but Jonathan Stewart had a solid day for the Panthers in this NFC Title game. Stewart rushed for 83-yards on 19 carries and did his part as usual for this Carolina offense, giving balance and the needed burst on more than a few occasions, to keep the chains moving and drives alive. Mike Tolbert and Fozzy Whittaker saw limited opportunities but Tolbert made a notable third down conversion on a 14-yard catch out of the backfield which led to a field goal and also converted the Panthers’ two-point try late in the game.
This receiving corps exceeded expectations all season long and they didn’t let that end in the NFC Championship game as they had one of their best days as a group. Philly Brown led the way with a big four catch, 113-yard performance that was highlighted by his 86-yard catch and score where he ran a perfect crossing route and evaded the Arizona safety and took it for six. Ted Ginn Jr. also had a night to remember against his former team as he started it off with a 22-yard touchdown run on a triple-option reverse where he weaved through the defense into the end zone, and finished with two catches for 52-yards through the air. Bug arguably his biggest play came when he chased down Patrick Peterson on the interception return to prevent the pick-six that could have changed the entire game. And as has been the case all season, the other two members of the receiving corps joined the party as well as Devin Funchess caught a late touchdown pass and Jerricho Cotchery threw in two catches for 17-yards to cap a huge day from this unsung group of wideouts.
Of course, with the game that Newton had, you can rest assured that Greg Olsen contributed mightily to that success. The Panthers’ veteran tight end played a big part as usual in marching his team down the field and getting them into scoring position. Olsen finished with a team-high six catches for 113-yards of classic Greg Olsen plays that the Panthers have grown accustomed to.
As with just about every other position, the offensive line wouldn’t let one of the biggest stages in the sport get the best of them as they had one of their best performances of the season against a dangerous defensive front in Arizona. This group led by the veteran Ryan Kalil gave up just one sack on the day in which Newton actually slipped and allowed just two quarterback hits snuffing out any pass rush hopes that the Cardinals had. This unit gave their quarterback all day in the pocket to carve up the Arizona defense and get his team into the end zone and also opened up some huge lanes in the run game with key blocks for Stewart and Newton to run through.
One of the keys to taking down this prolific Cardinals offense was the pressure derived from the defensive line and they got it in bunches once again this week. Even minus Jared Allen, this unit consistently got to Carson Palmer in the pocket and forced errant throw after errant throw helping to force a slew of Arizona turnovers on offense (6-total). Kawann Short, Charles Johnson and Kyle Love logged each of the team’s three sacks with Short and Johnson also forcing fumbles from Palmer as a result of their collapsing the pocket. A stat that isn’t as apparent on the scorecard is the four interceptions that Palmer threw which came from being flustered constantly in this game as the Cardinals’ front line just couldn’t hold up against the Panthers’ ferocious front.
A terrific defensive day of course meant that the league’s best linebacking duo made their fair share of plays. Luke Kuechly led the team with eight total tackles, key to holding the Cardinals to just 60-yards rushing, and also sealed the game even further with his second pick-six of the postseason late in the fourth quarter. Thomas Davis made a number of big plays to shut down the run but was unfortunately lost for much of this contest after he suffered a broken forearm, which he’ll hopefully recover from in time for the Super Bowl in two weeks. In his absence though, A.J. Klein and Shaq Thompson played well and contributed solidly to Carolina’s strong defensive effort.
The supposed weak link of this dominant Panthers team certainly didn’t look very weak in this contest as they handled Palmer, Larry Fitzgerald and company easily. The group held one of the best receiving corps in the league to just 235-yards passing; their lowest total of the season. The trio of Fitzgerald, Michael Floyd and John Brown combined for just 90-yards together but were relative non-factors during the meaningful moments in this game. Robert McClain held up extremely well this time around with solid coverage on a number of deep balls and nearly coming away with a pick while Cortland Finnegan’s lack of recognition was clearly a positive matched up against Fitzgerald. Kurt Coleman made one of the biggest plays of the game intercepting a Palmer pass in the end zone after the Panthers had just turned it over themselves, and then picked off another pass later in this one. Veteran safety Roman Harper was knocked out of the game with an eye injury but his replacement, Tre Boston, played quite well in his absence picking off a pass of his own. A group that was looked at as the deciding factor in this one, certainly proved their worth.
It was certainly a solid day on the special teams’ side as Graham Gano connected on both of his field goals (45, 21) and Ginn ran back one of his two punt returns for 32-yards to give the Panthers’ offense the ball at the 50. The biggest special teams play came on a punt when Cardinals returner Patrick Peterson fumbles it trying to make something happen and gunner Teddy Williams secured it to help Carolina keep the momentum.