Who: Arizona Cardinals (#2 seed in the NFC) @ Carolina Panthers (#1 seed in the NFC)
When: Sunday, January 24 – 6:40 pm
- This game features two quarterbacks that are in the MVP discussion. First is Panthers quarterback Cam Newton. No one has carried their team quite like Cam Newton has this season. Even without his number one receiver in Kelvin Benjamin, Newton has thrown for 3,837 yards, thirty-five touchdowns and ten interceptions. He has also rushed for 636 yards and ten touchdowns. Without Benjamin, Newton has relied on tight end Greg Olsen as his number one target. Newton has dominated the NFL this season and is a big reason why the Panthers only have one loss.
- Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer certainly did not have it easy either. Palmer tore his ACL for the second time in 2014, but returned to form this season. He finished the regular season with a career-high 4,671 passing yards, thirty-five touchdowns and eleven interceptions. He also set another milestone this past weekend, earning his first playoff win with a 26-20 overtime win over the Packers. The only concern with Palmer is that he suffered a fractured finger in week 15 against the Eagles. Some of his throws looked off on Saturday night against Green Bay, but he has plenty of weapons at his disposal that can bail him out of a bad throw.
- Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald is having a career season. Despite being thirty-two, Fitzgerald made a career-high 109 catches and scored nine touchdowns. Last week against the Packers, Fitzgerald had an amazing game, catching eight balls for 176 yards. His best moments came in overtime, as he made a 75 yard reception to set up the Cardinals at the Packers goal line. Right after Fitzgerald caught the game-winning touchdown, sending the Cardinals to Carolina. Fitzgerald is just one of the several receiving weapons Arizona has, so Carolina is going to have their hands full Sunday evening.
- One of the reasons why many experts are having trouble picking this game is because they do not know which offense will be more explosive. The defensive matchup in this game features the #5 (Arizona) and #6 (Carolina) ranked defenses in the NFL. Carolina has given up more passing yards (3752) than Arizona (3687), but Arizona has given up more rushing yards (1460) than Carolina (1415). Looking at turnovers, Carolina’s defense forced a league-high 39 turnovers, and Arizona finished with 33.
- There are several playmakers on both defenses. For Carolina, linebacker Luke Kuechly led the team in tackles (118) and also had four interceptions and two forced fumbles. The player who led the team in interceptions is safety Kurt Coleman (7), and the player who led the team in forced fumbles is linebacker Thomas Davis (4). Davis also intercepted four passes and had 105 tackles. Cornerback Josh Norman also has four interceptions and has certainly made his case for being one of the better cornerbacks (and trash-talkers) in the NFL. Kawann Short has a team-high eleven sacks.
- Arizona’s defense has stayed top-notch even without Tyrann Mathieu, who tore his ACL in week 15 against the Eagles. Safety Deone Bucannon leads the team with 112 tackles. Dwight Freeney signed with the team in October, but still leads the team in sacks with eight. Safety Rashad Johnson is tied with Mathieu with five interceptions, Justin Bethel has four forced fumbles with one recovered. The Cardinals also have defensive back Patrick Peterson at their disposal, who is a playmaker both on defense and on special teams. Both teams love to blitz and play an aggressive style of defense, so look for a game filled with hard hits.
My Pick: Cardinals
I had to think a few minutes before making this pick. I think this game is wide open and extremely difficult to predict. It could either be a very high-scoring game, or a very low-scoring game. The key factor that I considered in making my pick was Carolina’s second half in their game last week against Seattle. After going up 31-0 at halftime last week, Carolina was shut-out in the second half and only beat the Seahawks by a touchdown. Arizona talent-wise might have the best roster in the NFL, and if the Panthers want to win this game they’ll have to play sixty minutes, not thirty.
If you want to see who I think will be facing the Cardinals in the Super bowl, be sure to check out my AFC Championship preview.
Thanks for reading,