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Arizona a different team this time

CHARLOTTE – The Carolina Panthers opened their postseason last year with a home victory over the Arizona Cardinals in a Wild Card Playoff.

The goal now is to avoid this year's postseason run ending with a home loss to a Cardinals team that's more dangerous than the one Carolina contained last January.

"You can't go into a game like this saying, 'This is what we did to them last year,'" head coach Ron Rivera said. "This is a different quarterback, somebody who I think is a terrific football player."

The Cardinals were among the NFC's best a year ago but limped into the playoffs with starting quarterback Carson Palmer sidelined by a knee injury. Unproven signal caller Ryan Lindley was no match for the Panthers defense, which allowed a playoff-record low 78 total yards.

This year, however, Palmer is back in the mix, and the Cardinals find themselves in the NFC Championship opposite the Panthers.

"Last year was last year. This year is this year," defensive end Kony Ealy said. "New quarterback. We're looking forward to the challenge."

Before the Panthers fully turned their attention to hosting an NFC Championship for the first time in franchise history, Rivera reflected Monday on what it means to be in this position. Carolina got here with a 31-24 victory over the two-time NFC champion Seattle Seahawks in an electric Bank of America Stadium on Sunday afternoon.

"It validates everything we've done so far in terms of our development and growth as a football team," Rivera said. "It validates the patience that our owner has shown in us. It validates what (general manager) Dave (Gettleman) and his group has done in terms of looking at players and bringing in the type of players that will fit into our culture downstairs.

"That's what it signifies, and the hard work our coaches have put in and our players. This is what we've worked for – to get to this place."

Now the Panthers want to take advantage – for themselves and for their fans. The Cardinals possess many of the same qualities that drove them last season, among them a proven head coach in Bruce Arians, but Palmer has been the difference maker for a team that pushed Carolina for the No. 1 seed.

"It's real different. It's a different type of quarterback, a very veteran, experienced guy who is back there pulling the trigger," Rivera said. "They've got tremendous tools and weapons and a good offensive line. They have playmakers, and they have an aggressive, attacking style of defense."

Palmer possesses an arm that few others do, but he's not nearly as mobile as the quarterback the Panthers just faced in Russell Wilson.

"We'll look at things he doesn't like that make him uncomfortable, and we'll see things that make him comfortable," Ealy said. "We're going to try to make him uncomfortable."

While watching film of Arizona's offense from last year's playoff matchup might not be overly helpful, that's not the case on the other side of the ball. Defensive coordinator James Bettcher may be in his first season, but he previously was the Cardinals' outside linebackers coach.

"We didn't play them this calendar year, but we know them pretty well because we played them last year in the playoffs," tight end Ed Dickson said. "They're a little bit different – different defensive coordinator – but a lot of their tendencies and a lot of their guys are still the same.

"So we can go back and watch that game and a couple of games from this year and pick up from there."

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