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Five Things to Watch: Panthers vs. Cardinals

Posted Jan 23, 2016

The quarterbacks will be in the spotlight per usual, with the Panthers' pursuit of the NFC Championship possibly hinging on their ability to disrupt Carson Palmer.

1. START FROM THE TOP: Fair or not, quarterbacks rule the roost in the NFL, and while not on the same level as Brady vs. Manning in the AFC, many assume the NFC Championship game will come down to Newton vs. Palmer.

The contrasts between the two are significant and in some regards surprising, but all that really matters at this point is who has the better Sunday.

In the simplest terms, Carson Palmer is the savvy gunslinger in the matchup, a 13-year veteran with a cannon for an arm and an impressive cadre of receivers at his disposal. Cam Newton is the young up-and-comer who can beat you with his arm or legs.

But interestingly enough, Newton in just his fifth season has one more playoff victory than Palmer, who finally won his first just last weekend. Newton also has the arm to match Palmer's rifle, and while Carolina's receivers don't match up to the Cardinals on paper, they along with tight end Greg Olsen helped Newton match Palmer with 35 touchdown passes in the regular season – one behind league leader Brady.

Newton, Palmer and Brady are arguably the top three candidates for MVP this season, and all three will be in action Sunday. No, it's not all about the quarterback, but if either signal caller clearly outplays the other, it's a pretty safe bet that quarterback will be bound for his first Super Bowl.

2. WHEN PALMER HAS THE BALL: The most discussed matchup all week, for good reason, has been how Carolina's injury-plagued secondary will deal with Arizona's array of receivers.

Josh Norman, the Panthers' top cornerback and one of the top in the league – but the only one among Carolina's top three corners who is healthy – expects to face a plethora of Palmer passes.

"This is an offense that is going to come in here and try to put the ball in the air – we know that," Norman said. "They're probably going to throw the ball 50 times in this game, at least."

Norman, often not thrown at during his remarkable season, will welcome the action. But there is some cause for concern – as there would be even if Carolina's secondary were at full strength – with the Cardinals featuring a pair of 1,000-yard receivers (Larry Fitzgerald, John Brown) and a trio of receivers with six or more touchdown catches (Fitzgerald, Brown and Michael Floyd).

So how will Carolina combat the aerial assault? Well, Norman is a good place to start, but the key may actually lie on the front end rather than the back end. The secondary needs help from Carolina's pass rushers, and the combination of how well the Panthers' defensive tackles are playing and Palmer's (relatively) limited mobility bodes well.

"It's one of those games where you've got to get the quarterback off his spot and make him move," defensive tackle Kyle Love said. "We've definitely got to get to him or physically put his guys in his lap."

3. WHEN NEWTON HAS THE BALL: While the Cardinals would like to slow Carolina's pass rush by figuring out how to recharge a running game that has struggled of late, the Panthers are expected to lean on their run game – and for good reason. Jonathan Stewart set the tone in last week's playoff triumph with a 59-yard gallop on the first snap, emphatically announcing his return from a three-game absence.

Newton, on the other hand, had a fairly quiet day on the ground, but that could be a difference-making area in this matchup. Newton's legs will be a key regardless of how many carries he gets because the Cardinals love to blitz.

"If we don't keep a sound eye on their pressure looks, it could be difficult for us," Newton said. "They have guys on the defensive side of the ball who can dictate to an offense."

That's true, but Newton may be the NFL's ultimate dictator.

4. SETTING THE PACE: Speaking of dictating, another key will be Newton's ability to control the tempo of the game. He and offensive coordinator Mike Shula have done a masterful job in that area all season, and it may be more important than ever Sunday.

If the Cardinals do lean heavily on their passing game, it could make for lots of clock stoppages and thus a longer game, something that could wear on Carolina's defense down the stretch. The Panthers' offense, however, can answer that with their version of methodical mayhem. Look for Carolina to continue to employ a no-huddle slowdown of sorts, coming to the line quickly but then taking their time, eating clock while limiting Arizona's ability to substitute.

That, combined with Carolina's physicality, could turn the Cardinals into the worn-down unit down the stretch.

5. SPECIAL CIRCUMSTANCES: Cardinals cornerback Patrick Peterson hasn't returned a punt for a touchdown since he returned four as a rookie in 2011 – including one against the Panthers in the first career game for him and for Newton. Panthers special teams coordinator Bruce DeHaven still considers Peterson a potential game-breaker though, chalking up his lack of long returns of late to teams being careful with him. On the other side, Ted Ginn, Jr. had a big special teams play in the teams' playoff game last year when, playing for the Cardinals, he lost a fumble on a kickoff return. He would love to make a positive impact on special teams against the Cardinals this time around.

If the game comes down to a special teams play, it's even more likely to involve the kickers. The Panthers feel confident they've shored up some kick protection issues and have to feel good when they do protect for Graham Gano. He appears to have a stronger leg and has enjoyed a bigger year than Cardinals kicker Chandler Catanzaro, who has missed just three field goals but hasn't made one longer than 47 yards and has missed a league-high five extra points.