NFC Championship preview: Different styles

The top two seeds in the NFC advanced to the conference championship. Both boast top-10 defenses and MVP candidates with their quarterbacks.

Arizona Cardinals (14-3) at Carolina Panthers (16-1)

At this point, throw out the history between the two teams because, beyond their meeting in last year’s playoffs, it’s too old to matter. And last year the Arizona Cardinals didn’t have Carson Palmer for their short-lived playoff run that the Carolina Panthers ended with a 27-16 win in the wild card round.

These highly decorated teams have plenty of bragging power. The Cardinals have seven Pro Bowl players; the Panthers have 10. They each have coaches with .500 records in the postseason, each have winning record against common opponents and each have quality quarterbacks. What matters now is how they play in this final test to get to the Super Bowl.

Palmer threw for 4,671 yards (second in the NFC) and 35 touchdowns (tied for first in the conference … tied with Cam Newton, by the way), and had a 104.6 rating in the regular season. He also posted 11 games with a passer rating of 100 or more in the regular season, the most in the NFL.

Newton threw for 3,837 yards, and the same number of touchdowns as Palmer, with a 99.4 rating. What separates them is their assets – Palmer has the better and deeper receiving corps while Newton has the superior legs that earned him 10 additional touchdowns on the ground to become the first player in NFL history with at least 30 touchdowns passing and at least 10 rushing.

Arizona can spread out a defense with three or more receivers and has three excellent ones – Larry Fitzgerald, who has more 150-yard receiving games in postseason history than any other player, Michael Floyd and John Brown. Fitzgerald had eight catches for 176 yards and the game-winning touchdown last weekend, giving him 10 postseason touchdown catches, third-most in NFL history. Brown had a career-high 65 catches and 1,003 yards and seven touchdowns in the regular season. Floyd has five 100-yard games in his last nine games and had two touchdowns last week.

Newton, meanwhile, relies more on tight end Greg Olsen than any wide receiver. Olsen had 77 catches for 1,104 yards and seven touchdowns in the regular season, and he’s the only NFL tight end with five or more receiving touchdowns in each of the last eight seasons.

While both teams have solid running games – rookie David Johnson providing the punch for Arizona and veteran Jonathan Stewart for Carolina – both teams are stout on defense. The Panthers had the best turnover ratio in the regular season at plus-20; Arizona was solid at plus-9. The Cardinals defense was second in the NFC, giving up 321.7 yards per game; the Panthers were third with a 322.9-yard average. In fact, both the Cardinals and Panthers are top 11 in all three major defensive categories – total yards, rushing yards and pass yards allowed.

The last eight NFC Championship games have been decided by seven points or fewer, and four of them have gone to overtime. If the Panthers win, they will become the ninth team in NFL history with one or no losses in the regular season to advance to the Super Bowl.

With so many close comparisons between the two teams, if it comes down to quarterback efficiency from last week, the slight edge would go to Newton, who didn’t throw any interceptions and had one touchdown passing. Palmer put up big numbers, throwing for 349 yards, but he was sacked three times and threw two interceptions, and given the Panthers’ propensity to create turnovers, he’ll have to be careful in order to secure his second postseason win in the first NFL playoff game to feature Heisman Trophy-winning quarterbacks to start a game against each other.

STAT LEADERS

PASSING Palmer: 342-537-4671 (2C)-35 (T1C)-11-104.6 (3L) Newton: 296-495-3837-35 (T1C)-10-99.4
RUSHING D. Johnson (R): 125-581-4.6-8 Stewart: 242-989-4.1-6
RECEIVING  Fitzgerald: 109 (2C)-1215 (3C)-11.1-9 Olsen (TE): 77-1104-14.3-7
OFFENSE 408.3 (1L) 366.9
TAKE/GIVE +9 (2C) +20 (1L)
DEFENSE 321.7 (2C) 322.9 (3C)
SACKS Freeney: 8 Short: 11 (T2C)
INTs R. Johnson: 5 (T3C) Coleman: 7 (T1C)
PR Peterson: 8.1 Ginn: 10.3 (2C)
KR D. Johnson (R): 27.2 Whittaker: 23.2
PUNTING Butler: 42.9 Nortman: 45.4
KICKING Catanzaro: 137 (3L) (53/58 PAT; 28/31 FG) Gano: 146 (1C) (56/59 PAT; 30/36 FG)

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