What a weekend! The divisional round did not disappoint, providing us with some of the most electrifying moments we’ve witnessed all season. While four teams experienced the joy of advancing to their conference championship games, another four were left with nothing but disappointment and disbelief as they watched their Super Bowl dreams slip away. As fun as it was watch it all unfold, the harsh reality is that four more teams worth of coaches, players, and fans will lose sleep for the next few months because of that nagging, persistent “what if?” in the back of their minds. Because no game this past weekend was decided by more than a touchdown, every loser was no more than a couple of plays away from flipping the script. However, as we say here at 4th and Gyas, losers lose and winners win. At the end of the day that’s all that really matters.
While parity is a noble ideal and all, this year’s playoffs have taught us one thing: the best teams really are just the best teams. Of course, arguments can be made about certain teams not exactly matching up to the sum of their record, but there’s something to be said about each conference championship game featuring the 1st and 2nd seeded teams. Essentially this means that the teams who won the most games in the regular season got to take a week off and then host a playoff game to prove whether or not they’re really the best this league has to offer. Although it was a painfully close draw, the answer this season came back a resounding “YES, WE ARE THE BEST”. That means we as fans get to watch the powers of the NFL go toe-to-toe for the chance to play in the biggest game in the world, the Super Bowl. We’ll take these previews one game at a time since there’s probably 10,000 words to be said about each of the matchups and the 4th & Gyas podcast doesn’t exist (yet). Let’s start with the NFC Championship since I don’t have a vested interest in the game and don’t feel like making fun of Peyton Manning so early in the morning.
First of all, let’s take a look at our contenders here: the Panthers, they of the dab craze and 15-win season, barely escaped being victimized by another Seahawks miracle this past Sunday. Led by Cam Newton, the obvious far-and-away MVP of the league this season, Carolina is looking to finish what they started by adding a Super Bowl win to coach Ron Rivera’s resume. The Cardinals, known for their fearsome, turnover-happy defense and resurgent quarterback, earned 14 wins this season and are trying to give Larry Fitzgerald another shot at a ring after his many years playing on mediocre teams following Arizona’s last February appearance in 2008. These two teams get it done in very different ways, but the end result is the same: winning. Now they’ll go toe-to-toe with a trip to Super Bowl 50 on the line.
The history between two teams can always play a major role when they meet on the big stage. In the same way that Carolina needed to break the narrative of being bullied by the Seahawks built up over the past three years, a meeting between two NFC juggernauts usually contains some underlying motives you may be totally unaware of.
Surprisingly, there’s not much backstory to be spoken of when it comes to the Cardinals and Panthers. They are not perennial opponents and neither franchise has had consistent playoff success this side of the year 2000. Besides, Carolina’s only been around since 1995 as it is. No, there aren’t sixteen other games to use as reference like a certain other conference championship, but these contenders did face off in last season’s wild card round. That game was a nightmare for the Cardinals, who were forced to start their third quarterback of the season after Carson Palmer tore his ACL and Drew Stanton, who had the team on track in Palmer’s absence, sustained an injury as well. The man leading Arizona’s offense that day was Ryan Lindley, former San Diego State quarterback, seen here with 4th & Gyas’ senior editor. Let’s be honest, people, any NFL quarterback spending time with a semi-semi-professional sportswriter can’t be that big of a deal, right? That day the Cardinals amassed just 78 total yards, that’s total as in after all four quarters, to Carolina’s 386 as they fell 27-16 and the Panthers went on to the divisional round. You can expect the Cardinals to remember what happened last January when they take the field this Sunday hoping to avenge the humiliating effort.
Another intriguing storyline at play here is the collegiate success of the two quarterbacks. This will be the first playoffs matchup of Heisman-winning quarterbacks who were drafted 1st overall in NFL history. Cam Newton, who won the National Championship with Auburn before delivering the Panthers out of their dark times, quickly turned around the losing culture of the team he was drafted by. Palmer’s journey took a lot more twists and turns, seeing the quarterback traded by the Bengals who had placed their hope in him, traded again by the Raiders, and eventually finding a home in Phoenix.
For Palmer, the history of his alma mater runs much deeper in the NFL. That is, that a USC quarterback has never played in a Super Bowl or been particularly good at football for longer than a year or two before becoming the butt of some internet joke (Buttfumble anyone?). This season Palmer has a chance to redeem the failures of Mark Sanchez and Matt Leinart, along with a much longer list of Trojan quarterbacks who never found success in the NFL, by advancing to the Super Bowl. I’m sure it would warm Pete Carroll’s heart to see the Panthers defeated by the first Heisman winner of his dominant run at USC.
Looking at how each team found themselves in the NFC Championship can provide a lot of insight into how they will play come Sunday. Unfortunately for the Cardinals, they’d better hope the opposite comes to fruition. Arizona’s defense was typically dominant once again, but Palmer, who has been at his best in the red zone (inside the opponent’s 20-yard line) all season, struggled to seal the deal on Saturday against the Packers. In three separate red zone opportunities, Palmer overthrew what would have been a touchdown pass and settled for three points, underthrew what would have been a touchdown pass and was intercepted, and underthrew another potential score that was tipped by Green Bay and somehow ended up in the hands of Michael Floyd. The defense may have allowed Rodgers to complete another insanely improbable Hail Mary, but Arizona’s lead in the fourth quarter would have been much more than a touchdown had Palmer been able to capitalize when he had the opponent’s defense on the ropes. Arizona is hoping that Palmer’s mistakes were due to playoff nerves, the win over Green Bay was his first ever in the postseason, that are now settled with the pressure of the first game finally lifted.
As for the Panthers, disappointment is looming around the corner should their victory over Seattle be any indication of how they’ll perform in Sunday’s game. After jumping out to a 31-0 first half lead thanks to some mistakes by the Seahawks and great field position, the Panthers proceeded to concede 24 unanswered points to Russell Wilson and the Seahawks. Russell Wilson shredded the defense for 366 yards and 3 touchdowns after halftime, attacking the secondary that was as mediocre as I described it in the divisional round preview. Had Seattle made two field goals in the first half instead of missing one and eschewing another to try and convert on 4th and 5, we could very well be talking about a NFC West conference championship showdown. Not to mention that “Super Cam” looked overwhelmingly human for the entirety of the game, throwing for just 161 yards and one touchdown through four quarters on Sunday, unable to score even when the Seahawks were steadily cutting into Carolina’s lead. Cam was a Thomas Davis on-side kick miracle leap away from being labeled as the quarterback who fell short against the Legion of Boom yet again.
Key Matchups and Factors
The matchup that will have the largest impact on Sunday afternoon’s contest is the battle between Carolina’s pass rush and Arizona’s offensive line. Carson Palmer was brought down behind the line of scrimmage just 27 times during the regular season, tied for second-least in the league. Because of the vulnerability of that Panthers secondary it will be crucial for Kawann Short and Co. to pressure Carson Palmer throughout the game, lest they watch defensive backs not named Josh Norman get torched all day long. This Carolina defense was fourth in the league with 44 sacks in the regular season and are no strangers to harassing quarterbacks. In just one game played, they were second among teams in the post-season with 5 sacks last week against the Seahawks. Carolina can’t afford to give Palmer time in the pocket to tear their suspect secondary limb from limb.
Keeping the focus on Carolina’s defense, the linebacker unit will have their hands full with the Arizona running game. Luke Kuechly, Thomas Davis, and Shaq Thompson will need to play sideline-to-sideline for a full 60 minutes in order to stop Chris Johnson and rookie sensation David Johnson on Sunday. The Johnson Bros. (copyright 4th & Gyas 2016) combined for 1,395 yards and 11 touchdowns this season. If those totals seem low, don’t be fooled. The Cardinals use the run game to set up play-action passes 20-30 yards downfield and continue to attack a secondary once they’ve broken the seal of long completions. It isn’t rare to see Arizona virtually ignore their running backs until Carson Palmer has the team ahead by 17 points and it’s time to run out the clock. If the Cardinals can find success on the ground early in the game, Carolina will be guessing whether or not Palmer will pull the ball back and find Larry Fitzgerald for 30 yards every time he begins handing the ball off to one of their powerful backs.
The matchup that may decide the outcome of this game focuses, you guessed it, on Carolina’s defense. Josh Norman will have to be able to win his one-on-one battle with Michael Floyd if the Panthers are going to have any chance at winning this game. Floyd stands a full three inches taller than the 6” Norman and weighs 30 pounds heavier, 225 to Norman’s 195. Carolina’s star corner will need to utilize his tracking skills, the ability to locate and engage a ball in the air, as well as his speed to keep himself between Floyd and Carson Palmer’s passes. Floyd, however, also runs a 4.4 second 40-yard dash so…may God have mercy on your soul, Josh Norman.
Ultimately, the Arizona Cardinals are in my opinion the most complete team in the NFL, and have been all season. Outside of a few injuries this team has no real weaknesses at any level of their offense or defense. If you stop their run game, they just crush your soul with long pass after long pass after long pass. Should you find success throwing into the middle of the field, it’s only a matter of time before Justin Bethel tricks your quarterback into a pass he never should have thrown and returns the interception for a touchdown. Cam Newton has been able to carry these Panthers with his superior skill set and mediocre offensive weapons, but without the Cardinals falling victim to a first half in which everything possible goes absolutely wrong for them, Arizona takes Larry back to the promised land, 42 – 31.