All season long the talk coming from the Arizona Cardinals has been championship or bust but even those with the utmost highest of expectations should understand that there would be no shame in losing this weekend to the Carolina Panthers. However, despite the disadvantages that await, the Cardinals will still have that “championship or nothing” mentality when they take the field at the near-freezing Bank of America Stadium on Sunday. For this week’s preview of All In The Cards, I will list all of the Carolina Panthers advantages heading into this game and explain how the Cardinals will try to counteract them. Plus I will give some matchups that favor Arizona. I hope you enjoy and if you do make sure to follow me on Twitter @QTipsforsports or just search the hashtag #Allinthecards for in-game thoughts and analysis. Now let’s preview the Cardinals playoff match against the Panthers:
Arizona Cardinals @ Carolina Panthers
Last Meeting: L 27-16 at Carolina (1/3/15)
Carolina advantages and how Arizona plans to counter them:
- Panthers have won 12 straight at home: In a season where it seemed that home field advantage meant nothing, the Panthers have been amazing at home. What’s even more unusual is that the Cardinals, a franchise that once threatened the record for the longest road losing streak just a little over a decade ago, finished this season 7-1 in road games and actually averaged better stats than they did at home. The advantage still goes with the Panthers, but these aren’t the Cardinals that historically have played terrible on the road so expect the Cardinals to play just fine.
- Cam Newton has thrown 19 touchdowns against the blitz this season: This seems like a big problem for the Cardinals because they blitz more than 45% of the time, the most in the NFL. However, the Cardinals will not shy away from blitzing for two reasons. The first reason is that just like their injured all-pro safety Tyrann “The Honey Badger” Mathieu, Bruce Arians doesn’t care about your stats against the blitz because they’re still going to blitz you. The second and more reassuring reason for Cardinals fans is that they have an X-factor in safety-turned-linebacker Deone Bucannon. Bucannon could either use his speed to generate a faster blitz from the linebacker position than what Newton would be used to or the Cardinals could use Bucannon to drop back into coverage and send a corner or a safety on a blitz.
- Panthers have rushed for 100+ yards in 30 consecutive games: Despite the Cardinals being a top-10 run defense, the Cardinals have struggled against the run in all three of their losses. That’s a huge advantage for a Panthers team that consistently runs the ball at a high level. Yet there is a way for the Cardinals to at least slow down the Carolina running game and that would be putting an extra defender in the box and trusting your secondary to shutdown the receivers on any play-action passes. Arizona has more than enough practice putting its cornerbacks on an island as that basically happens every time the Cardinals blitz. The Cards secondary is more than talented enough to blanket the Panthers subpar receivers to let Arizona commit to stopping the run game.
- The weather and field conditions: The game temperature is expected to be in the high 30s at kickoff and the playing field, which has been terrible at times this season, is expected to be pretty bad. However, the Cardinals took some advice from the Seattle Seahawks (who just played at Carolina last week) and will bring a couple different pairs of cleats to see which will work best so they don’t slip and fall on the grass like the Seahawks did a week ago. As for the temperature, that narrative is a little overblown as many of the Cardinals’ key players have more than enough prior experience playing in freezing weather (including players like Carson Palmer and Larry Fitzgerald).
- Larry Fitzgerald is set to have another big day: In his illustrious career, Larry Fitzgerald only has more receiving yards against the Philadelphia Eagles and the three other NFC West teams than he does against the Carolina Panthers. However if we were only looking at Sunday’s game, Fitzgerald still has a big advantage. The Panthers are missing half of their starting secondary and their all-pro cornerback Josh Norman doesn’t cover slot receivers. Expect Fitzgerald to get a lot of playing time in the slot on Sunday and a lot of targets when he does line up in the slot.
- Revenge from last season’s playoff loss: The Panthers eliminated the Cardinals from the playoffs last season so there is definitely a revenge factor. Also important is that Carson Palmer wasn’t playing that game and Arizona still had a chance to win late in the game. It’s up to Palmer to prove he was the difference in last year’s loss by being the difference in a win this time around.
- All the pressure is on Carolina: There is a lot of pressure on Palmer to prove he was the reason for last year’s outcome between the two teams, but other than that all off the pressure is on Carolina. Like the Cardinals, the Panthers have also had a magical season where the expectations are championship or bust. On top of that, the Panthers have the added pressure of being expected to win because they are the home team, they just finished a 15-1 regular season, and they have the probable MVP in Cam Newton. The Panthers have thrived as the “no one believes in us” team and now have the added pressure of being the favorite while the Cardinals are finally back in the comfortable role of underdog. Even if the Cardinals deny it, they do have an excuse if they lose while the Panthers do not.
Nothing will come easy for the Cardinals but they know that. This has been a resilient team all year and this will be their toughest test. I would not be that surprised if the Panthers won this game but after following the Cardinals so closely this season, this just seems like a team of destiny that will find a way to win. I have the Cardinals barley holding on for the win to advance to Super Bowl 50.
Game Pick: Arizona 31, Carolina 29
My Wild Card Game Picks:
- Kansas City 23, Houston – Correct (KC 30-0) (1-0)
- Cincinnati 27, Pittsburgh 24 – Incorrect (Pit 18-16) (1-1)
- Seattle 20, Minnesota 17 – Correct (Sea 10-9) (2-1)
- Washington 31, Green Bay 23 – Incorrect (GB 35-18) (2-2)
My Divisional Round Picks:
- New England 20, Kansas City 16 – Correct (NE 27-20) (3-2)
- Arizona 34, Green Bay 27 – Correct (Ari 26-20 OT) (4-2)
- Carolina 24, Seattle 23 – Correct (Car 31-24) (5-2)
- Denver 24, Pittsburgh 13 – Correct (Den 23-16) (6-2)
My Conference Championship Picks:
- New England 24, Denver 16
- Arizona 31, Carolina 29
Regular Season Record: 159-97 (.621)
Playoff Record: 6-2 (.750)
Total Record: 165-99 (.625)
Perfect Score Predictions: 2