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NFC Wild Card Preview and Prediction: Arizona Cardinals vs. Carolina Panthers

Cam Newton

Cam Newton

The 2014 NFL playoffs will kick off in Charlotte Saturday afternoon when the Arizona Cardinals take on the Carolina Panthers on ESPN. The Cardinals (11-5) have four more wins than the Panthers (7-8-1), but are a near-touchdown underdog on the road against the NFC South champions.

Arizona got off to a terrific start, winning nine of its first 10 games despite losing several key defenders before the season even started. Unfortunately, the injuries continued to pile up for the Cardinals, with the casualties including their No. 1 and 2 quarterbacks and top running back, as Bruce Arians’ team stumbled to a 2-4 finish.

Even though Carolina is just the second team in NFL history to make the postseason with a losing record (Seattle, 2010 as NFC West champions), the Panthers have won four games in a row and are one of the hottest teams in the league. The first to win back-to-back NFC South division titles, Carolina is hosting a playoff game for the second straight season. Last season, Ron Rivera’s second-seeded Panthers fell 23-10 to the 49ers in the Divisional Round.

Carolina is 0-3 in the postseason since losing in Seattle in the 2005 NFC Championship Conference Game. The Panthers are 2-2 at home in the playoffs, including a 33-10 loss to the Cardinals in the Divisional Round on Jan. 10, 2009. That was the year Arizona would go on to play in Super Bowl XLIII, losing a heartbreaker to Pittsburgh 27-23.

The Cardinals are back in the playoffs for the first time in five seasons. Arians, who was the Steelers’ offensive coordinator in Super Bowl XLIII, will be making his postseason debut as a head coach.

Arizona Cardinals at Carolina Panthers

Kickoff: Saturday, Jan. 3 at 4:20 p.m. ET

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TV Channel: ESPN

Spread: Carolina -6.5

[inline_team_schedule team-id=31 date=20140904 sport=nfl upcoming=1 limit=17][/inline_team_schedule]

Arizona’s Key to Victory: Don’t Leave it Up to Lindley

Ryan Lindley, the Cardinals’ third-string quarterback, will be making just his seventh career start, but this obviously is no ordinary game. Lindley is in this position because Carson Palmer tore his ACL in Week 10 and backup Drew Stanton is dealing with a knee injury of his own. This past Sunday, Lindley finally threw his first touchdown pass, after an NFL-record 229 attempts, yet Arizona wound up losing 20-17 to San Francisco. For the season, Lindley is completing less than half of his attempts (48.4) with twice as many interceptions (four) as touchdowns (two), and is averaging 187.3 yards passing per game. He also, briefly, was benched in favor of rookie Logan Thomas prior to last week’s game, but Bruce Arians decided to stick with Lindley for that game and this one. To add to the challenge facing Lindley, the Cardinals are without top running back Andre Ellington, but they still will have to figure out a way to generate some sort of rushing attack to take pressure off of their unproven quarterback. That is especially the case considering how well Carolina’s defense has been playing lately. During their four-game winning streak, the Panthers have limited opposing quarterbacks to a 64.6 passer rating and have yielded just 43 points. Arizona’s defense by and large has carried this team for much of the season, and it will need to come up with yet another solid performance. Forcing some turnovers would certainly help the Cardinals’ cause, but what is critical is their 29th-ranked passing defense must not give up many big plays to a Carolina offense that’s known more for running the ball. Arizona is a good team, as it’s no small feat to win 11 games, especially in the division where the defending Super Bowl champion resides. And it will take another well-rounded team effort against the Panthers if the Cardinals want to keep their dream of playing in the Super Bowl at home alive. A breakthrough game from Lindley is certainly possible, but it’s probably in Arizona’s best interests to not put pin all of their postseason hopes on their young, untested, third-string quarterback.

[inline_team_schedule team-id=28 date=20140904 sport=nfl upcoming=1 limit=17][/inline_team_schedule]

Carolina’s Key to Victory: Getting the Ball to No. 88

It’s fair to say that the Panthers already have the advantage on defense going up against third-string quarterback Ryan Lindley. However, Carolina will still need to score points to beat Arizona, and this is not a team that exactly lights up the scoreboard. The Panthers enter this game 19th in the NFL in scoring offense (21.2 ppg) while the Cardinals are fifth in scoring defense (18.7 ppg). Carolina’s calling card has been running the ball, and it has been quite effective doing so recently behind the resurgence of running back Jonathan Stewart and a rejuvenated Cam Newton. However, the key to the Panthers’ offensive game plan Saturday afternoon may be tight end Greg Olsen. The leading receiver on the team despite the presence of first-round pick Kelvin Benjamin, Olsen is Newton’s most trusted target and should be able to take advantage of what has been a weakness for Arizona’s defense. The Cardinals have allowed a NFL-high 1,085 yards receiving (on 85 rec.) to tight ends this season, along with eight touchdowns. Two weeks ago, Arizona gave up 139 yards and two scores to Seattle’s Luke Wilson. No disrespect to Wilson, but Olsen, who recorded his first 1,000-yard campaign this season, is a little more experienced and established at the TE position. It’s just a matter of Newton and offensive coordinator Mike Shula recognizing this and making No. 88 a priority in the game plan.

Final Analysis

It’s been a great run for Arizona, especially considering all of the injuries the Cardinals have had to deal with throughout the season. However, I think it’s too much to expect Ryan Lindley, who has a grand total of six starts under his belt, to break through under these circumstances. Scoff all you want about Carolina’s losing record, but the Panthers won their division and are one of the NFL’s hottest teams right now. The defense is playing more like it did last season and Cam Newton seems to have gotten a second wind thanks to the contributions of Jonathan Stewart. Arizona will hang around, but I think the odds are stacked too much against the Cardinals this time. The team that everyone says doesn’t belong in the playoffs sends the Super Bowl host home three victories shy of making their dream a reality.

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Prediction: Carolina 20, Arizona 13