The Carolina Panthers and Arizona Cardinals are set to square off in the playoffs for the second consecutive season, this time with a trip to Super Bowl 50 hanging in the balance. It's fitting because these were the two best teams in the NFC all season, with Carolina going 15-1 to claim the top seed and Arizona just a step behind at 13-3.
Before the matchup, azcardinals.com writer Darren Urban and Panthers.com senior writer Bryan Strickland discussed some of the particulars.
Urban: It's been an amazing year for the Panthers. They go from a sub-.500 record to near-undefeated, and not only have the highest scoring team in the league but also one of the best defenses. Clearly, though, the team starts with Cam Newton. He's been good in the past, but that guy who has dominated this year is not the same guy who the Cardinals saw in the Wild Card game a year ago. What has made him so much better?
Strickland: The simple answer is the passage of time. I thought Newton was trending toward what we've seen this season back in 2013, when the Panthers won 11 of their last 12 games to earn the first of what is now three consecutive NFC South crowns. Newton had ankle surgery after the year that really limited his offseason, and while he learned some valuable lessons from increased mental reps, it set the stage for an injury-plagued season. He sat out the opener with a rib injury – the first missed game of his career – and wasn't his spry self after returning (though that, too, benefitted him as a passer). A harrowing car accident cost him another game late in the season. This year, however, he's been fully healthy, and so has his offensive line. That unit was injury-plagued in 2014 as well and couldn't properly protect Newton until they healed up, gave Mike Remmers a shot at right tackle late last season and added left tackle Michael Oher this season.
Speaking of quarterbacks and health, the Cardinals seem to be back to playing like they were when Carson Palmer was healthy in 2014 and then some. Like Newton, Palmer's got to be an MVP candidate. Unlike Newton, regularly escaping the pocket isn't a big part of his game. How do you see Palmer's arm challenging Carolina's secondary and Carolina's pass rush challenging Palmer's legs?
Urban: That's a good question. In fact, to me, that's the whole key to this game. I think the Cardinals have the weapons on offense to cause issues in the Carolina secondary. Josh Norman has had an amazing season, but he can't cover Larry Fitzgerald, Michael Floyd and John Brown all at once. That said, Palmer has to have time to get those passes there. The Packers got a lot of pressure on Palmer last weekend, and it caused problems. The pass protection has not been great the last two games (including the finale against the Seahawks). But it was pretty good all season – the Cards tied for fourth for fewest sacks allowed, even passing as much as they did – and there is the hope they can find that again this weekend. Palmer was also up and down himself against the Packers. The Cards need more consistency, although Palmer's overtime scramble/spin/throw to Fitzgerald was incredible.
I'm guessing the Panthers are thinking run-first with Stewart and Tolbert and Newton. I know Stewart had 100 yards last week. Is that how it goes for that offense – run and then play-action after the run? Is that how they will test a Cardinals defense with a very good secondary?
Strickland: There's no doubt this offense starts with the run game – witness Jonathan Stewart's 59-yard run on the first play from scrimmage against a stingy Seattle defense. The unit isn't always dominant, but there is a consistency and commitment there that tends to stress opposing defenses. Carolina has rushed for 100 or more yards in 27 consecutive regular season games, the longest streak since the Pittsburgh Steelers of the mid-1970s. The Panthers have done the same in their three postseason games during the streak, including 188 yards against the Cardinals a year ago. Now I wouldn't say that it's as simple as running to set up play-action passing opportunities. Yes, that happens at times of course, but this offense has been great at doing what you don't expect – in part simply because there are so many different directions it can go. They're not afraid to throw on first down and are very good at controlling tempo even while passing. And, back to the running game, the variety of run packages they have is immense.
All that being said, I feel like the Cardinals defense has matched up well with Carolina the last couple of years. Is there confidence in how they can handle Cam and company?
Urban: The Cardinals have done a nice job against the run this season, finishing sixth in rushing defense. Of course, the Seahawks were pretty good against the run and the Panthers made that work pretty easily last week. The key to me is to not get mesmerized by Newton, and know that slowing the run game is paramount. The last thing the Cardinals want is for the Panthers to be in a lot of third-and-short situations, because Cam makes those nearly automatic. If they can do that, they feel confident in how they can cover the wideouts. Tight end Greg Olsen is a different story – I'll be interested to see how they try to handle him. It hasn't been easy for any defense, and the way he and Newton have clicked is scary. But the Cards have their playmakers, even without Tyrann Mathieu. With all due respect to Josh Norman, Patrick Peterson has had as good a season as anyone at cornerback this year, and vets like Rashad Johnson, Jerraud Powers and Tony Jefferson have quietly played very well. As a pass rusher, Dwight Freeney has been surprisingly good despite not signing until five games into the season. Defensive tackle Calais Campbell has been playing very well lately, too.
It seems like, after the way the Panthers handled the Seahawks and the Cardinals struggled to close out the Packers – along with the Panthers playing at home – that there is high confidence in Carolina about this game. Am I reading this wrong? What is the vibe in the locker room and the city?
Strickland: There is a confidence but not a cockiness, but it's no different than the vibe around this team pretty much all season. Head coach Ron Rivera recently shared an anecdote that he relayed to some school students about relieving the feeling of pressure come test-taking time by feeling fully prepared. That's the feeling around this team right now – that they're fully prepared and can't wait to take the test. I wouldn't mistake that for them thinking it's an easy test by any means. Not that they've reinvented the wheel here or something, but I will say that after a 1-3 start in 2013 that turned Rivera's job status into a hot topic, he and the coaching staff seemed to unearth a formula for preparation that has really worked for this team. Three consecutive division titles speak to that.
Since we're on the subject, I'll close with this. Is a high confidence also a part of the equation on the Arizona side of things? I've heard some mentions of the Cardinals, understandably, feeling like this is a chance to show what they're really all about after coming to Charlotte for the playoffs last season with Palmer.
Urban: I love the Rivera notion of preparation easing pressure. That's exactly what Arians and Palmer have been saying since the regular season ended (and you will find no more prepared QB in the league than Palmer). I agree that there is a different feeling with this team because Palmer is available this season. Clearly, having Ryan Lindley behind center was a handicap last year in the playoffs. And I do think there is confidence. The Panthers have had a great season and they rightfully – especially with a home game – deserve to feel like they are the favorites. They have proven that time and again this year. The Cardinals, with their 7-1 road record, don't feel like the task is too large, though. I saw the stat where every NFC Championship since 2007 has been decided by seven points or fewer. I don't see why it would be different Sunday, and if it's a one-score game, anything can happen.
View photos of past games between the Panthers and Cardinals leading up to the NFC Championship.