Form has held in the NFC playoffs, and as a result, fans get to see the conference’s two best teams — and the squads that were most successful throughout the entire season — square off for a trip to Super Bowl 50. Neither can exactly boast of storming into the championship round, since Arizona needed overtime to subdue Green Bay at home, while Carolina almost gacked up a 31-0 halftime advantage against Seattle.
Still, the NFL can’t be disappointed with the matchup, since it pits a pair of outstanding quarterbacks against each other. In fact, Carolina’s Cam Newton and Arizona’s Carson Palmer could well finish one-two in the MVP balloting, while plenty of top-shelf performers from both teams add star power to the proceedings. It will be an interesting matchup of Arizona’s blitzkrieg attack against the ground-game-and-defense approach of the Panthers.
NFC Championship Game: Arizona at Carolina
Kickoff: 6:40 p.m. ET
Spread: Carolina -3
Three Things to Watch For
1. Running Men
The Panthers prefer to control the clock and the game with their rushing attack. That was definitely on display against the Seahawks when Jonathan Stewart ran for 106 yards on 19 carries, including a 59-yard bolt on the first play from scrimmage. Carolina will no doubt give Stewart plenty of opportunity to run, since the Cardinals surrendered 135 yards and 6.1 yards per carry to Green Bay last week. Arizona, meanwhile, needs a boost on the ground after amassing only 40 yards on 19 carries in the overtime win against the Packers. Rookie David Johnson, who has been so valuable down the stretch, was limited to 35 yards on 15 attempts.
2. Fancy Passing
The Cardinals may not have run it so well against Green Bay, but there is no denying Carson Palmer’s effectiveness. He threw for 349 yards and three touchdowns against the Packers and will no doubt pay close attention to the Seattle aerial approach, which produced 366 yards and three scores by Russell Wilson. Though much of that yardage came after the Panthers built a big lead, and Wilson was harassed often by the aggressive Carolina pass rush, it is possible for the Cardinals to make some progress via the pass. For a team that boasts an outstanding quarterback, plenty of speed on the outside (John Brown, Michael Floyd), the ultimate slot weapon (Larry Fitzgerald) and a head coach (Bruce Arians) who has an outstanding offensive mind, that’s good news.
3. Home Cooking
Those who were at the Panthers’ game last week reported that they hadn’t heard Bank of America Stadium that loud in a long time. Carolina has built a 9-0 mark this year at home, and its fans believe they have played a big role in the perfect record to date. That has to inspire tremendous confidence in the Panthers, whose 15-1 record this year earned them home dates throughout the NFC playoffs. But don’t think the Cardinals will wilt because of some noise. Arizona was a franchise-best 7-1 away from the desert this year, and no one on the roster seems worried about having to play such a big game 2,500 miles from home. “We knew the importance of winning on the road, and the opportunity of setting the tone for later in the season if we had to go on the road — like we do now in the championship game — and win on the road,” Arizona safety Rashad Johnson said. “We’ve got confidence that we can get it done. We’ve been a great road team.”
This has every potential of being an exciting and dramatic conference title game. Both teams have substantial talent on both sides of the ball and are led by a pair of MVP candidates. The Cardinals have to make sure Carolina can’t control tempo with the run game and must also keep Cam Newton from getting loose on designed running plays and scrambles.
The Panthers, meanwhile, must make sure Carson Palmer cannot get too comfortable in the pocket, the better to make use of his many weapons and turn the game into a shootout. You can bet Carolina won’t fall asleep if it gets a lead, as it did last week, and Arizona will do everything it can to not be as susceptible to the run as it was last week. Do not be surprised if the last team to possess the ball wins this game.
Prediction: Panthers 27, Cardinals 23
— Written by Michael Bradley, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Bradley is a writer and broadcaster based in suburban Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter @DailyHombre.