The NFC Divisional Round matchups were a thing of beauty. First, it was the 2-seed Arizona Cardinals taking on the Green Bay Packers and going into overtime after two impressive hail marys on the same drive from Packers QB Aaron Rodgers tied it up. It was such an impressive sight to see that there was no way overtime could compare, right? Wrong. The NFL gods threw everything at football fans, whether it be the “Coin Flip That Didn’t” (patent pending) or the Packers’ defense inexplicably losing track of future Hall of Fame receiver Larry Fitzgerald, and before we knew it, the Cardinals were heading to the NFC Championship for the second time in franchise history.
Then there’s the Panthers. They got off to a 31-0 lead at halftime over the Seattle Seahawks and it felt as if the Seahawks were already starting to prepare for the NFL Draft. Then, the Panthers decided to do their best impression of the Cleveland Browns and allowed the Seahawks to score 24 unanswered points until the clock eventually ran out and Carolina advanced to their franchise’s fourth appearance in the NFC Championship.
The Cardinals and Panthers are two fairly similar teams. They were both the top seeded teams in the NFC and they both got there on the outstanding play of their tough defenses (both defenses rank in the top 7 of highest-scoring defenses in 2015), and offenses that were wildly creative and unrelenting in their ability to put up points. Additionally, neither team has ever won a Super Bowl, with both franchises having a 0-1 record in the big game. But there has to be some level of difference, so let’s break down the positional units of each team and see which one is more likely to be advancing to the Super Bowl.
This might just be the positional group that is the most even battle of the two teams. Cam Newton and Carson Palmer are both having phenomenal years, and should undoubtedly be the top two vote-getters when the MVP ballot is cast. Newton in 2015 became the very epitome of “Making Something Out of Nothing” and being the catalyst for the Panthers’ offense. He completed 60% of his passes and threw 35 touchdowns to only 10 interceptions, and also ran for 636 yards and 10 touchdowns on the ground.
Palmer, on the other hand (more on that later), threw 35 touchdowns and 11 interceptions and, despite being a traditional pocket-passing type, also ran in one touchdown before hilariously spiking himself into the ground. However, Palmer also had an impressive 63% completion rate and threw nearly 1,000 more yards than Newton.
Both quarterbacks had an amazing 2015 regular season, and both performed up to expectations in their 2015 playoff debuts last week. There’s not much wiggle room between these two stars when both are healthy. But that’s not the case.
It’s time for more on that hand of Palmer’s. In Week 15 against the Eagles, Palmer sustained a minor injury on the index finger of his throwing hand. It was slightly taped up for games in Week 16 and 17, and there were no signs of concern. However, in the NFC Divisional game, Palmer’s tape was changed to a different makeup that was designed to be more flexible. This time, it was evident that some of Palmer’s throws were off. There were times when he lacked enough power or simply didn’t put the ball on the right target, but the results were enough to make Cardinals fans worried. Against a stout and opportunistic Carolina defense, Palmer will need to get his finger under control.
The Cardinals took some time to find their true star in the running game this year. At the start of the year, head coach Bruce Arians planned on a tandem between the hyper-athletic but oft-injured Andre Ellington and the once-explosive but now seasoned veteran Chris Johnson. Ellington would get hurt in Week 1, during which Johnson solidified himself as the primary back. Then Johnson went down, and the vacancy at running back was filled by rookie David Johnson, who had looked impressive in the few snaps he had seen. David Johnson then went on to lead the NFL in rushing yards over the last six weeks while also cementing his status as an effective pass-catcher out of the backfield. David Johnson and Ellington, who was healthy but not very effective in the divisional round, combine for a speedy rushing attack that could very well pose a threat to the heavy-hitting Panthers defense.
The Panthers, on the other hand, have a brutally effective three-headed monster of a rushing attack between primary running back Jonathan Stewart, fullback/actual brick wall Mike Tolbert, and the aforementioned Newton. Their running game, which ranks 2nd in the NFL, compiled 1,881 rushing yards and 17 touchdowns from these three, and there were also some small contributions from rookie Cameron Artis-Payne and Fozzy Whitaker. Newton’s ability to burn you with either his arm or his legs only serves to open up holes for Stewart, and Tolbert is mostly used to literally bowl over the competition with his 5’9″, 250 lb frame. With the physical style that the Panthers run with, it could be difficult for the Cardinals’ slightly more lean linebackers to make the tackles.
Unlike with the quarterback and running back positions, this positional group matchup is admittedly one-sided. All the credit in the world is due to this group of Panthers receivers, consisting of Ted Ginn, Jerricho Cotchery, rookie Devin Funchess, Corey Brown and…is there someone else? There probably is. Look, the point is that this receiving corps is not the greatest show on Earth. That doesn’t mean they’re not good. Carolina’s offensive coordinator, Mike Shula, has created gameplan after gameplan to expertly utilize the talent he had, and Newton capitalized in the biggest way.
But there’s no denying that the Cardinals’ receivers are better. Larry Fitzgerald is going to be in the Hall of Fame, possibly even first-ballot, and he’s been having one of the best years of his career. Michael Floyd can make any catch, it seems, and is easily in the elite tier of wide receivers right now. John Brown, the slot receiver, is arguably the most reliable pass-catcher on this team and inarguably the fastest offensive player on this team. Together, this trinity of talented receivers played an integral role in getting the Cardinals the 2nd best passing offense in the NFL. Don’t even ask who has the edge here, because you know the answer.
The Panther’s primary pass-catcher is not a wide receiver. It’s Greg Olsen, their tight end. With 33 more catches than Carolina’s top receiver, Ginn, Olsen is easily Newton’s favorite target. He finds some rather incredible ways to haul in passes and might even be so much of a weapon that he could garner a lot of attention from the Cardinals’ Patrick Peterson.
Much on the contrary, the Cardinals’ tight ends do not factor into the passing game as much. Arians prefers to use the tight end as a blocker more so. However, he gets solid receiving production out of his unit as well. Darren Fells and Jermaine Gresham have combined for 39 catches and 768 yards, with 4 touchdowns between the two of them. Additionally, rookie Troy Niklas has caught 4 passes, 2 of which went for touchdowns.
Yet, as lopsided an edge as the Cardinals receivers had, the edge is reversed here.
These two offensive lines are vastly different from each other, but have both provided a great deal of success. The Panthers have a weakness at their two offensive tackle spots, specifically left tackle Michael Oher, but this weakness is almost negated by a running game that focuses on the interior and a passing game that thrives on Newton’s ability to scramble if the defensive linemen over pursue in the pass rush. But with a defense that generates most of its pressure from blitzing outside linebackers, that outside weakness could become a nightmare for Carolina.
Conversely, the Cardinals’ primary weakness on the line is their interior, specifically right guard Ted Larsen and, to a lesser extent, center Lyle Sendlein. The 2014 offseason saw free agent left tackle Jared Veldheer come to Phoenix and his presence solidified the pass blocking for Arizona, giving Palmer sufficient time to throw. The 2015 offseason saw free agent left guard Mike Iupati defect from division rival San Francisco to the Cardinals, and his presence has similarly brought a stabilizing presence to the team’s running game. It will be interesting to see if the Panthers’ lightning-quick defensive tackle Kawann Short can be warded off by Larsen.
It would be unfair to compare these defenses as anything other than one singular unit. Why? Well, they’re so different from one another. The Panthers run a 4-3 base defense that puts the job of rushing the quarterback on the defensive line while letting the linebackers worry about the running backs and tight ends, as well as frequently mixing up the pass coverage between zone and man coverage. The Cardinals run a 3-4 base defense that typically deploys at least three of their four linebackers to rush the passer, with the intent that any runners will get swallowed up by the massive blitz, while the talented defensive backs usually apply tight man coverage.
For the Panthers, their defense benefits greatly from having arguably the best front seven, with a dominant defensive line that breaks through the line and stuffs the runner just as often as they sack the quarterback. Their two primary linebackers, Thomas Davis and Luke Kuechly, are playing lights out football in just about every aspect. The secondary overcame the loss of number two cornerback Bene Benwikere and still manages to cover receivers, largely because of the career year that primary corner Josh Norman has been having. But still, Carolina thrives on regularly mixing up the types of coverages and pressuring the quarterback so quickly that they don’t have time to diagnose the coverage and they are rushed into making a mistake. If this defensive line is unable to hurry Palmer, then the Panthers may be in trouble.
For the Cardinals, the plan is to blitz, and then blitz some more. This front seven has a large rotating cast of pass rushers, including the likes of Calais Campbell, Dwight Freeney, Frostee Rucker, Alex Okafor, Tony Jefferson, Deone Bucannon, and rookie Markus Golden. In fact, as many as fifteen different defenders have registered at least one sack for the Cardinals this year. It helps that the Cardinals also have the second best defensive secondary in the NFL. Peterson is having the best year of his career, allowing less than 48% of passes to be completed against him, but the secondary consists of much more than just Peterson. Prior to his injury, safety/nickel corner Tyrann Mathieu was perhaps the most dangerous player to throw against, and the two other primary corners, Justin Bethel and Jerraud Powers, are no pushovers either. If there’s one weakness in this defense, it’s Powers, who took over nickel corner duties after Mathieu went down. In tight man coverage, he is the weak link (though by only a small margin) and can be exploited with a speedy receiver in the slot. However, the Panthers don’t really have any receiver like that except for Ginn, so they’ll be lucky if they can draw a few matchups between Ginn and Powers.
Chandler Catanzaro had the difficult task of replacing longtime Cardinals kicker Jay Feely, but he has done an amazing job so far. In 2015, he made good on 90% of his field goals, which is a very valuable asset to have. The only concern is his 0-2 record on kicks from 50 yards or longer. The Panthers’ kicker, Graham Gano, exhibits a stronger leg but lacks some accuracy, as he’s missed six field goals of 30 yards or longer.
Both punters, Arizona’s Drew Butler and Carolina’s Brad Nortman, are averaging between 42 and 45 yards per punt, a very solid number. The punt recovery units of both teams, though, are highly adept at streaking down the field and downing the ball in locations that give their defense good field position. In a game that looks to be very close, these two punt units could end up impacting the game in a big way.
In the kick and punt return games, the Cardinals have a clear edge. Kick returners David Johnson and JJ Nelson both possess the speed and maneuverability to slice through the oncoming tacklers, and Patrick Peterson’s punt return skills are almost as scary as his coverage skills. While Carolina makes good use of Ginn’s speed on punt returns, their kick return game is lacking in both experience and yards. They do the job well enough to avoid putting the offense in a bad starting spot, but don’t expect Fozzy Whitaker or Joe Webb to break the game open with a big kick return.
Ron Rivera and Bruce Arians are easily two of the best coaches in the league right now. The accomplishments that their two teams have made in the past three seasons are evidence enough of that. Rivera’s style of coaching is exuded by the way his team plays: an unrelenting effort to stick to the gameplan and force the other team to change their plans. Arians’ style is the complete opposite. Often times, Arizona comes out with a very premeditated plan and executes it, but the real gameplan usually gets made at halftime, as Arians and his staff are completely willing to overhaul everything and come out with a new gameplan that has expertly adapted to exploit the other team’s weaknesses.
So what happens when a coach who refuses to alter his plans runs up against a coach who thrives on adapting to the situation? I think you’re starting to understand just why this game will be great to watch.
Even more so, watching Panthers OC Mike Shula square off against the aggressive Cardinals DC James Bettcher will be an amazing war of two people who know exactly how to utilize each specific player to maximize their skillset. And Arians, who calls plays for the Cardinals offense, will throw just about everything at Sean McDermott’s defense and see if the coordinator can stop it.
This game will be very similar to a marquee boxing match: two titans trading punches and all of us waiting to see who falls first. It could very well go either way, with the overpowering might of the Panthers’ collective wills and the strategic, almost surgery-like, methods that the Cardinals so expertly use to trump the opponent.
In the end, I’m expecting to see Newton get mostly stifled by the Cardinals defense, but he’ll break out in the second half in a furious comeback. I believe the Cardinals’ offensive line will hold off the pass rush just enough for Palmer to distribute a couple of scoring drives, and it will ultimately come down to a crucial stand on defense late in the fourth quarter for the Cardinals to secure the win.
Prediction: Cardinals 24 Panthers 18