– Evan Sally
Arizona @ Carolina, Sunday 6:40pm
About halfway through the season it became clear that these are the two best teams in the NFC if not the NFL. Despite a late run from Seattle, here we are with Arizona and Carolina as the last teams standing for the right to represent their conference in the Super Bowl and it’s a matchup I’ve been anticipating. Not only are these team’s well rounded, each boasting top 10 offenses and defenses, for my money they’re two of the most aesthetically pleasing teams in the league as well. Each has talented playmakers are both sides of the ball and coaches that have aggressive styles that place their players in the right positions and mindsets to succeed. Both teams also had surprisingly difficult games in the previous round to get to this point, albeit for different reasons. These teams also share a lack of pedigree at this stage of the postseason. In this meeting of Heisman winning, number one pick quarterbacks and their respective teams, the differences will be found in the margins.
For Carolina their 2015 playoff campaign could not have started any better. Within 4 minutes Luke Kuechly was walking into the end zone after intercepting a Russell Wilson pass to go up 14-0 on the Seahawks, and it seemed like the route was on. That thought seemed to be confirmed when with 6 minutes left to go in the 1st half Newton hit Greg Olsen with a dime of a pass to go up 31-0. Complete domination. Carolina looked so dominant it prompted tweets like this out of me and many others:
From the questions I never thought I’d have to ask about this game category: when do you think about pulling Cam for next week? #SEAvsCAR
— Hard Foul Sports (@HardFoulSports) January 17, 2016
Well silly me for underestimating the mighty Seahawks. Seattle ripped off 24 consecutive points and it could be argued that if the game was a few minutes longer they would have completed one of the greatest comebacks in NFL history. Carolina survived but Seattle put the fear of God into Panthers fans and probably a few of their players and coaches as well. How can you not find something like that troubling? Carolina, the highest scoring offense in the league ended up only mustering 295 yards, and only 70 in the second half. The defense which was so dominant in the first half was shredded by Russell Wilson. We saw two different Panther teams depending on what half you’re lookng at. This leaves us an important question: what matters more, their dominant 1st half or their piss poor 2nd half performance? I think the 1st half does, but concerns about not being able to play a full 60 minutes have to be rattling around in Panther heads.
Arizona ran into a bit of trouble on their way to the NFC Championship game too. After beating Green Bay by 30 only a few weeks earlier, the Cardinals found themselves in a dog fight in their divisional round matchup with the Pack. Aaron Rodgers, with a group of receivers that would make a rag tag group of receivers look good, was somehow able to make enough plays to drag his team to overtime. If I could make a quick aside, I know as more and more times passes since Rodgers won the Super Bowl some criticism is starting to pile up that he hasn’t been able to win more. While some of that criticism is apt (you shouldn’t lose your first playoff game when you’re 15-1 in 2011 for example), I find much of it pretty unfair. Rodgers still has the ability to be the best player in the NFL on any given day. Yes his team lost again this season but what he was able to do with some of the most garbage receiving options on a playoff team I can remember should be listed as one of his best accomplishments.
But I digress. Another factor in the Cardinals struggles was their awesome offense that had been one of the best in the NFL all season was slowed considerably. The Packers defense was a big factor but another was the play of Carson Palmer. He ended up getting his 350 yards and 3 TDs and made huge plays down the stretch yes, but he was far shakier than usual. In fact it was more Larry Fitzgerald bailing out Palmer with a huge day than the other way around. He threw 2 interceptions and easily could’ve thrown 2 more. I think this is a clear case of a guy who had never won a playoff game being nervous. For the Cardinals sake they have to hope getting that monkey off of his back calms his nerves entering the biggest game of his life.
After surviving nervy games, both teams should be ready to go on Sunday. For Carolina one of the biggest issues that was exposed was their lack of depth in the secondary. After the loss of Charles Tillman and Bene Benwikere earlier this season, they’ve been forced to rely on guys like Robert McClain and a washed up Cortland Finnigan for a large amount of snaps. And while they’ve done admirably at times, when Wilson was able to adjust to the Panthers pass rush he was able to do whatever he wanted with the football. With the always aggressive Bruce Arians at the helm you can count on that secondary being picked on with the Cardinals numerous weapons. Larry Fitzgerald in particular, coming off of a monster 176 yard day should feast. However to take advantage of that weak Carolina secondary outside of Josh Norman, it’s paramount to protect Palmer. The Arizona offensive line is better than Seattle’s which allowed 5 sacks last week but Palmer is nowhere near as mobile as Wilson. This is one of the key matchups on this side of the ball.
For Carolina their key is keeping the pedal to metal and not allowing the score of the game dictate their play calling within reason. Mike Shula, the Panthers offensive coordinator has done a great job with play design and varying the run and the pass, creating an offense that allows Cam to do the most with some sub par receiving options outside of Greg Olsen. However, when they went up 31-0, and then Seattle started to mount their comeback it became clear that his number one goal was to run out of the clock instead of going for the kill shot. While the problem of having to protect a 31 point lead shouldn’t arise again, I still believe an aggressive Panther offense is the best version of the Panthers offense. That should be easy with Cam Newton at the helm. Seattle posed a unique matchup for Cam, they’re one of the few teams in the league with the athletes that can rein in his scrambling ability. Arizona, while they have a good defense, I’m not sure if they can match that. For Arizona the key is when Newton does scramble they have to make him feel it every time, make him slightly less willing to pull the ball down to get easy yardage. Also they must contain Jonathan Stewart as well, when the Panthers offense is unbalanced Newton will be more apt to try to create more and may end up taking some long sacks that destroy drives. For Carolina a big question is can their receivers make hay against another very good secondary. And for Arizona they must find a way to let anyone except Greg Olsen beat them. I’d focus the majority of my defense towards him and take my chances on Devin Funchess and Ted Ginn Jr making big plays in a NFC title game.
Look, this is a really close matchup between two fantastic teams. Of the two Championship games I’m confident this will be the most entertaining, and if it weren’t for the specter of Brady in the AFC I’d be confident saying the winner of this game will win the Super Bowl. This game will come down on the shoulders of each quarterback, who will extend the most drives and play mistake free football, and on which coach doesn’t make a clock management mistake. At this point I’m more confident in Cam’s ability to scramble and make big throws on the move and Riverboat Ron’s decision making than their Arizona counterparts.
In what I believe will be the game of the year, the Panthers win 28-24.
– Evan Sally (@Evan_Sally)