High Stakes Offensive Shootout: NFC Championship Preview: Cardinals at Panthers

nfc-championship-game-arizona-cardinals-vs-carolina-panthers

Photo Credit: CalvinAyre.com

By Jason Sharpe

After their nail-bitter NFC Division Round victory – the closest embodiment of the “Cardiac Cats” nickname I’ve ever witnessed – the NFC top-seeded Panthers host the second-seeded NFC Division Round-winning Cardinals on Sunday at 6:40 P.M. with the NFC Championship and a trip to the Super Bowl on the line

CHARLOTTE N.C. – The Carolina Panthers and the Arizona Cardinals have not met on the field since the NFC Wildcard Round of the playoffs last season. The Panthers were able to eek out a victory over the Cardinals with a dominant second half, riding a third quarter comeback and a fourth quarter defensive stand to grind out a 27-16 win in and all-around sloppy game by both teams. Thinking back on the game, it was more like watching a preseason game than a postseason game. Yes, both teams played that bad. However, the postseason matchup between the Panthers and the Cardinals is different. The NFC Championship and a trip to the Super Bowl are on the line.

Coming off a nail-bitter victory in the NFC Division Round, the NFC top-seeded Panthers host the second-seeded NFC Division Round-winning Cardinals at The Bank for the NFC Championship. Last week’s victory over the Seattle Seahawks was the most nerve-racking and unprecedented 31-0 lead at halftime football game ever I’ve ever seen. But the “Cardiac Cats” pulled it out, and that’s all that matters. According to Yahoo! Sports writer @jaybusbee, Cam Newton summed up the second half of the game, saying, “There were lots of players with their butts tight. Coaches with their butts tight. Fans with their butts tight. But we kept playing.” One of my good friends from college, @jamberg_,whom I spent many hours talking sports whilst working on the editorial board to churn out two copies of “The Appalachian” per week, offered his own take on Newton’s quote, saying, “My butt could’ve produced diamonds from coal.” Myself, and probably most Panthers fans, can identify with Jake’s commentary.

The “Cardiac Cats” can’t show up to The Bank on Sunday like they did last week. If the offense is held to scoring no second half points, the Cardinals will win the NFC Championship and punch their ticket to the Super Bowl. However, I expect things to be a very different this week. Both teams will be running out onto the field with a chip on their shoulder. The Panthers are still trying to prove themselves, as many people still doubt them, including the Cardinals and their fans. It just absolutely baffles me why there is still doubt and disdain among many NFL analysts and fans, given their historic season and their current position in this year’s postseason. The Cardinals will come onto the field with a different chip on their shoulder, looking to avenge their loss and dismissal from last year’s postseason at the hands of the Panthers in the NFC Wildcard Round. This game is important to both teams, for very obvious reasons, and it will be an all-out offensive dogfight through the air.

To sum up what to look for in this matchup, be ready for an offensive shootout. The Panthers and Cardinals are the two top-scoring teams in the NFL this season, and both set franchise scoring records. The difference in this game will come down to matching opponents’ scoring drives and clock management while putting together scoring drives. The key to an NFC Championship and a trip to the Super Bowl for both teams are their quarterbacks – whether or not Newton or Carson Palmer can handle the pressure. Pressure being both when forced out of the pocket – having to read the field while scrambling and make a good decision on the fly – and the pressure of time, remaining cool, calm and collective until the clock hits 0:00 in the fourth quarter.

Keys To The Game

Panthers:
1. Limit turnovers. No turnovers would be nice. Any opportunity gifted to the Cardinals’ offense often ends up with points on the scoreboard.
2. Set the offensive tone early. Mix up offensive play calling from the get-go to establish the ground game. Very simple, the Panthers must be able to pick up yards by grinding it out in the trenches. Look for the Panthers to try and established the run game via read option plays, which has constantly kept opposing defenses guessing, which Jonathan Stewart and company have taken advantage of when Cam Newton lets them keep the ball and find the hole for the medium to long gain on the ground. With the Cardinals’ defense expected to blitz on most plays to put pressure on Newton, the Panthers can take advantage of this via read option plays, keeping the Cardinals’ defense guessing.
3. The Panthers must hand the ball off to Jonathan Stewart often – specifically on the opening offensive drive – to establish his confidence. We saw the result of that after his 59-yard pickup on the first snap of the NFC Division Round last week, as he made the Seahawks’ defense look silly throughout the first half.
4. Pick up the blitz. The Cardinals blitz more than any team in the NFL. They are confident in their man-to-man coverage. I argue they are overconfident. The Cardinals can either live or dye by blitzing on Sunday. If the Panthers’ offensive line can pick up the blitz, they can create opportunities for big plays downfield.
5. The defense must break through the offensive line, on every play. The Panthers’ defense must use their pass-rushing prowess to break through Cardinals’ offensive line, wearing them down over the course of the game, which will lead to less protection and force Palmer to make off-balanced pass attempts.
6. The “X Factor” – force Palmer out of the pocket. Palmer is not a scrambling quarterback. Also, get to Palmer quickly in the pocket. He is surprisingly mobile while under pressure in the pocket, and is good at creating more time for himself. He can be very dangerous if he can find ways to create a few extra seconds to look downfield to find one of many talented receivers the Cardinals possess to come back, adjust to the ball and make the catch. If he has the extra second to step into his throws, the Panthers’ secondary will have their hands full.

Cardinals
1. Generate turnovers. Specifically, force Cam Newton out of the pocket for him to make a split-second decision when throwing on the run. Newton has used better judgment this season when the pocket collapses on pass plays and he is forced to scramble and/or throw on the run. However, there is still the chance that Newton will try to force a big play in a tightly covered area, which has historically led to interceptions.
2. Stop the Panthers on third down, specifically on third and long pass plays when Newton sees nothing down field, and decides to tuck it and run. During these situations, Newton has been a huge factor this season for the Panthers to continue drives in close games.
3. Be able to contain Newton on when the pocket collapses and he makes the decision to tuck and run. The Cardinals must be able to bring Newton down, and at 6’5” and 245 lbs, he is larger than a majority of players on the Cardinals’ roster. The Cardinals’ defense must be able to quickly wrap up and tackle him.
4.Blitz, but be able to quickly sniff out and adjust to the read option plays, and shut them down. Newton and Jonathan Stewart and company have become extremely synchronized in running the read option. When they establish the ground game early through Newton handing the ball of to the running backs in the read option, it normally leads to medium to long yards gained on the ground. A “QB/RB Spy” must be incorporated in most defensive plays to achieve this.
5. Fully utilize Patrick Peterson on special teams and on defense coverage. He is one of the most dangerous kick returners and cornerbacks in the NFL.
6. The “X Factor” – the offensive line must give Palmer time in the pocket to utilize has cannon of an arm. With the many talented receivers the Cardinals’ possess, Palmer must have the time to look down field. Given the Panthers’ injury-plagued secondary, Palmer must have the extra few seconds to find the open receiver or read the defense to create a play through the air for one of the Cardinals’ wide receivers. If the offensive line can achieve this, Palmer will be able to pick apart the Panthers’ secondary all day.

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