Two of the most disappointing teams in the NFL this season will square off on Sunday afternoon at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte as the Arizona Cardinals will take on the Carolina Panthers. This will be a rematch of the NFC Championship Game from last season where the Panthers crushed the Cardinals 49-15. Arizona comes into this week’s game coming off of 6-6 tie last Sunday night at home against the Seattle Seahawks. It was a game where Carson Palmer did move the ball against the Seattle secondary, completing 29 of 49 passes for 342 yards but it was never easy. The kicking game also cost the Cardinals as blocked punt in the fourth quarter and missed field goals by Chandler Catanzaro, including a potential, game-winning, 24-yard chip shot in overtime, were the difference. Now, defensively Arizona was fine last week as the Cardinals held the Seattle offense in check, but that has to be taken with a grain of salt as the Seahawks have two of the worst tackles in the league.
For the Panthers, they resume their season after a much-needed bye week. Carolina lost 41-38 in New Orleans back in Week 6 in an epic offensive shootout at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Drew Brees and the Saints torched the Panthers secondary for 465 passing yards and showed once again that allowing Josh Norman to leave in free agency in the offseason has proven very costly. Cam Newton returned from his one-game absence due to a concussion and completed 27 of 47 passes for 322 yards with two touchdowns and one interception. After the game, Newton showed his true colors once again with a short, terse 90-second press conference, demonstrating a very poor attitude for someone that is supposed to be the face of the Carolina franchise.
Arizona at Carolina
Kickoff: Sunday, Oct. 30 at 1:05 p.m. ET
TV Channel: FOX
Spread: Carolina -2.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Can Arizona stay balanced offensively?
It is going to be very tempting for Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians to become very pass-happy with his play-calling this week, as the Panthers cannot really stop the pass. However, in order for Arizona to win this week the game plan needs to continue to feature heavy doses of David Johnson, as he has quickly emerged as not only the Cardinals’ best player, but also one of the top offensive weapons in the NFL. Johnson had 33 carries for 113 yards last week against a very stingy Seattle rush defense and always seemed to get those key, tough yards that kept drives alive. If Johnson can get around 20-25 carries this week, then Carson Palmer will be set up to go on the attack in the passing game.
2. Carolina offense vs. Arizona defense
With Cam Newton back in the fold, the Panthers should be able to move the football against the Cardinals. The big question is will Carolina try to limit the amount of times that Newton runs the ball to try to reduce the number of hits he takes? There is no question about Newton’s dynamic playmaking ability, but he’s not too far removed from suffering a concussion and there’s only so much punishment a body can take, even in the case of a guy as big and strong as Newton. Look for a healthy dose of Jonathan Stewart to try to keep the Arizona defense honest, as the Cardinals can be relentless with their pass rush when things are clicking on all cylinders for them.
3. Mindset of both teams
These two teams came into the season with very high expectations. But with their seasons on the brink (more in Carolina’s case), it will be very interesting to see how each responds this afternoon. Will the Cardinals mail it in if they fall behind by a couple of scores early on against a desperate Panthers team or will they rise to the occasion and get a hard-fought win? In the case of Carolina, will Newton stay poised enough as the leader of the team if things get tough in the early going and keep battling through the game or will he pout if the Panthers fall behind early? This game is going to test the ability of both Arians and Ron Rivera to motivate their players and have them still compete at a championship level when things are not going their way.
On paper, Arizona is the better team right now and should not have any major issues with this Carolina team today. Nevertheless, with the way this season has unfolded for the Cardinals you can expect the unexpected. That is why the Panthers defensively will rise to the occasion and make just enough plays to steal a close hard-fought second of the win of the season. While, for Arizona the disappointment will continue with another close loss that will send the defending NFC West champions to 3-4-1.
Prediction: Panthers 30, Cardinals 24
— Written by Scott Whittum, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and also writes for College Sports Madness, covering college football, basketball, softball and baseball. Follow Scott on Twitter @ScottWhittum.