As the second game on championship Sunday, the NFC offers up a similar matchup as the AFC, by pairing up the #1 and #2 seeds. It’s not a shock that both teams have found each other in quest of a Super Bowl appearance. All season, Carolina and Arizona have been the most complete teams in the conference, if not the league.
The top seeded Carolina Panthers will be playing in the franchise’s first NFC Championship Game since 2003 by getting past Seattle last week in the divisional round. Carolina built up a 31 point lead at halftime, before hanging on late in the 4th quarter, 31-24. Cam Newton was held in check within the pocket, as Seattle contained him for 11 rushing yards on three carries. But a game that was featured more by Carolina’s defense, which picked off Seattle’s Russell Wilson twice.
Arizona, who came out victorious in a marathon of a game at home against Green Bay, will be participating in their first conference championship game since Kurt Warner rejuvenated his career back in 2008. He might not be Warner, but Carson Palmer’s historic 2015 season continued last week by completing 61% of his passes for 349 yards and three touchdowns. However, the massive reason why Palmer’s numbers weren’t higher was due to the two interceptions he threw. Regardless, the Cardinals’ offense should be flying high into Carolina.
Arizona vs Carolina
Although Cam Newton has been an enormous augmentation for Carolina’s success this year. The Panthers wouldn’t be where they’re at if not for its prolific defense, that’s forced a league-best 41 turnovers.
Arizona runs a balanced offense, but the soul of it resides in the connection and communication amongst Larry Fitzgerald and Carson Palmer. Fitzgerald’s 176 receiving yards Saturday were a playoff career high. In eight postseason games, he has 10 TD catches and averages 114 receiving yards
This entire season, the Panthers’ defense have thrived off of interfering the smooth communication of opposing quarterbacks and their wide receivers. When now faced with the NFL’s best offense statistically, creating turnovers and disrupting Palmer’s timing will be critical.
Ironically, this game features a rematch of last year’s wild-card meeting in Charlotte, which the Panthers won 27-16 against a depleted Cardinals squad that didn’t have Palmer. Though this game showcases the NFL’s most explosive offenses, a shootout seems unlikely given the quality of the respective defenses. Expect Cardinals coach Bruce Arians to deploy his deep fleet of wideouts — Larry Fitzgerald, John Brown and Michael Floyd — to attack a Carolina secondary that’s thin at corner behind all-pro Josh Norman.
Norman last week spent the majority of the time covering the Seahawks’ Tyler Lockett and Doug Baldwin. It’s worth noting that the set of Arizona’s receivers are in fact better than Seattle’s, therefore the task Norman obtains becomes more formidable.
Panthers Pro Bowlers Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis form arguably the game’s best linebacking tandem, and they may have to cover a lot of ground if Arizona keeps Carolina in nickel packages. Arizona’s David Johnson and Patrick Peterson and Carolina’s Ted Ginn provide both teams with big-play potential in the return game.
One name to keep an eye on, that hasn’t already been mentioned is Panthers’ DT Kawann Short, who had a team-high 11 sacks and could be a problem for Palmer, who operates best in a clean pocket. Panthers’ Pro Bowl RB Jonathan Stewart rushed for 106 yards and two TDs against the Seahawks’ top-ranked run defense in his first game since Dec. 13.
The Cardinals have allowed 381 rushing yards in their last three outings. So if Carolina can receive a balanced ground attack from Stewart and Newton, then watch out.
For both franchises, this game will mean so much more than what meets the eye. Arizona and Carolina are still looking for their first Super Bowl title, and taking the next step in doing so continues on Sunday evening.
When Cam Newton is pumping passes through the secondary and knifing past linebackers, not one defense the NFL offers can limit him and the Panthers’ multi-dimensional offense. The same can also be said for Arizona. Although they don’t supplement a dual-threat quarterback behind center. What the Cardinals do display however, are tall, versatile receivers and running backs that can play within any offensive style.
Arizona’s offense has proven it can travel, but their stonewall defense hasn’t faced an offense this diverse all season. For yet another week, Carolina rides Cam Newton long enough, as he carries them into the Super Bowl for the 2nd time in franchise history.
Prediction: Carolina 27 Arizona 21