Arizona’s Carson Palmer paced the league in points per game (32.8), yards per game (426.3) and passing yards per game (292.8) on the road this season. The shame is that this matchup isn’t taking place under the bright lights of the Super Bowl. The combined 28 regular-season wins of the Cardinals (13) and Panthers (15) are the most by opposing playoff teams since 2004. This will also be the first postseason game of the Super Bowl era featuring two teams that average at least 30 points per game.
By Jack Ryan
These teams have been on a collision course for the NFC Championship Game all season. They rank first and second in total points, point differential, takeaways and points off of takeaways. Carolina boasts the NFL’s best home record (8-0) while tying Arizona for the best road record (7-1).
Beyond the impressive statistics, the conference title showdown also showcases two of the league’s most aggressive coaches, collectively nabbing the last three NFL Coach of the Year awards. Living and dying by the “No risk it, no biscuit” mantra, Bruce Arians is a fearless play-caller with little regard for coaching by the book.
“I play to win,” Arians explained after taking criticism for throwing on second down ahead of the two-minute warning and sending an all-out blitz on Aaron Rodgers’ Hail Mary in last week’s overtime victory.
Ron Rivera now embraces his own “Riverboat Ron” moniker after experiencing a mid-career epiphany that enabled an expanded understanding of probability in determining the outcome of football games. Armed with the understanding that field goals don’t win games in a touchdown league, Rivera takes a backseat to no one in key fourth-down decisions.
Arians’ squad is coming off its two most sluggish performances of the season. Rivera is still learning “how to kill a gnat with a sledgehammer,” as NFL Media’s Deion Sanders put it after the Panthers nearly blew a 31-0 halftime lead last week.
Although Palmer generated the NFL’s highest passer rating (121.2) in the second half of games this year, he has struggled mightily in the first half of the last two games.
Arians chided Palmer for being too conservative early in last week’s game, electing for shorter throws rather than challenging Green Bay’s defense downfield.
All parties now insist Palmer has nerves and emotion out of his system and is operating under more aggressive mindset this week.
Palmer isn’t the only member of the offense in the spotlight. Arians called out the offensive line for “getting their ass kicked up front” over the past two games.
After watching defensive tackles Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short dominate Seattle’s blockers last week, it’s no surprise that Arizona’s coaching staff is trying light a fire under their own offensive linemen.
If the Cardinals defense is going to keep Newton under 30 points, they must set a hard edge, keep him inside and stay disciplined in short-yardage situations.
Cam Newton has 27 combined touchdowns versus one interception in his last nine games. … The Cardinals defensed has blitzed more frequently than any this season (44.5 percent). Newton has thrown more touchdown passes (18) versus the blitz than any quarterback this season. … Jonathan Stewart has rushed for at least 50 yards in 16 consecutive games, the NFL’s longest active streak. … In linebackers Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis, the Panthers defense boasts two of only three NFL players with at least 100 tackles and four interceptions this season. … None of the last eight teams to finish with the league’s best record outright has gone on to win the Super Bowl. The last team to do so was the 2003Patriots.
This is the first postseason meeting in NFL history between starting quarterbacks who both won the Heisman trophy. … Carson Palmer owns the NFL’s best winning percentage (.870) since the start of the 2014 season. … David Johnson leads the NFL with nine touchdowns on the road this season. …Larry Fitzgerald is the only receiver in the Super Bowl era with at least 150 receiving yards in three different postseason games. … Patrick Peterson allowed the lowest passer rating (45.6) in coverage this season. In two career playoff games, he has surrendered just three receptions for 27 yards. … Arizona’s defense has held opponents to 20 points or less in six of the last seven games.