The best two teams in the NFC will go head to head, as the Arizona Cardinals and Carolina Panthers will battle it out to earn a trip to Super Bowl 50. Both teams are coming off victories while suffering a scare last weekend. The Panthers nearly let a 31-0 halftime lead slip away against the Seattle Seahawks and the Cardinals nearly saw their season come to an end thanks to an Aaron Rodgers Hail Mary as time expired to force overtime. However, both teams overcame adversity and we all get to watch the #1 and #2 seed battle it out!
Carolina absolutely dominated Russell Wilson and the Seattle Seahawks in the first half of last week's divisional round game, taking a 31-0 lead into halftime. Heading into the game, Seattle went 27 straight games without giving up a 100-yard rusher, but it was Jonathan Stewart leading the attack for the Panthers, rushing for 106 yards and two scores on 19 carries. This was a great sign as Stewart returned to the field for the first time since his week 14 foot injury.
Stewart could play a big role in Sunday's game as the Cardinals defense are vulnerable on the ground and gave up 135 yards rushing against the Packers. Stewart could help limit Carson Palmer and the high-powered Cardinals offense if he can control the game on the ground. A successful run game will also help a Cam Newton play action pass.
Cam Newton really had little to do with the Panthers offensive success last week, as he threw the ball just 22 times, and finished with 161 yards and a touchdown. It was already 14-0 before Newton attempted his first pass, thanks to a Luke Kuechly pick 6 on Russell Wilson. Of course, it was Greg Olsen who still had a very good game despite only 22 pass attempts from Newton. Olsen finished the game with six receptions, 77 yards and a touchdown.
Expect Cam to do a little more passing in what should be a high-scoring game. Also, he ran for just three yards last week but he will likely have more chances to run as guys like Dwight Freeney and Calais Campbell will be putting pressure on him, forcing him to scramble.
Kuechly and the Panthers put constant pressure on Wilson shut down Marshawn Lynch all game. Wilson was sacked five times and threw two picks. Lynch ran for just 20 yards on 6 carries and never looked comfortable going up against the Panthers front 7. The defense will have another tough task this weekend going up against the talented rookie David Johnson.
Since his 229 yard, two touchdown performance against the Eagles in week 15, David Johnson has struggled in his previous three games. Facing the Seahawks and Packers defense twice, Johnson has rushed for just 99 yards on 35 carries, that's less than three yards per carry. Nevertheless, Johnson has made a huge impact in the passing game for the Cardinals. In those three games, Johnson has 12 receptions for 165 yards.
Carson Palmer will have to be at his best to beat the Panthers and luckily he'll have Larry Fitzgerald to help him get there. We saw a vintage Fitzgerald last week against the Packers, making a huge play in overtime to help the Cardinals advance to the NFC Championship. Fitzgerald caught eight passes for 176 yards and a touchdown. Back in 2008 when the Cardinals reached the Super Bowl but lost to the Pittsburgh Steelers, Larry Fitzgerald put up one of the greatest postseasons in NFL history. In the Cardinals four playoff games, Fitzgerald caught 30 passes for 546 yards and 7 touchdowns. Expect to see another historic performance from Fitz this weekend.
The Panthers will also have to keep an eye on Arizona's other two receivers, John Brown and Michael Floyd. Brown caught five passes for 82 yards last week while Floyd caught just 3 passes, but two of those went for touchdowns.
Arizona's offensive line will have to protect Carson Palmer from the Panthers front seven and give him time to throw. If Palmer gets good protection and is able to connect with his receivers, it could be a long day for the Panthers secondary.
As much as Cam Newton has taken this league by storm, I still am a big believer in Carson Palmer and I truly believe Larry Fitzgerald is going to be too much for Carolina to handle in the slot. This could be a shootout but I'm taking the road team.
Give me the Cardinals 34-28.
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