Panthers-Cardinals: Game Will Be Much Closer Than Anticipated

NC NighthawkAnalyst IJanuary 9, 2009

The Arizona Cardinals will give the heavily-favored Carolina Panthers all that they can handle in Saturdays’ NFC Divisional playoff game in Charlotte, where rain will be a possibility.

In the first round of the NFL playoff, the Arizona Cardinals surprised the experts and football fans who said they were one of the worst division winners in the history of the NFL. The Carolina Panthers has had the chance to rest their injured and prepare to meet an offense that was third in the NFL in scoring.

Arizona wants to prove that they can win on the east coast and will be ready to play.  As been well-documented, trips to the east have been a real beast to the Cards.

This just in: the Cardinals went 0-5 coming to the East Coast this season. In those five defeats, Arizona allowed its opponents to score an average of 40 points per game.

The Panthers won their eight home games by an average of 15.4 points per game while the Cardinals are now 2-20 in their last 22 games in the Eastern Time zone.

The Cardinals feel that they let one get away when they blew a 14-0 lead in a regular season game in which the Panthers came back and won 27-23, despite QB Kurt Warner completing 35-of-49 passes for 381 yards and two touchdowns.

In October, the Panthers were clinging to a 24-23 lead early in the fourth quarter. Warner quickly took the Cardinals down the field, where they faced a 2nd-and-3 at the Panthers 15. Warner thought he had running back J.J. Arrington open at the five. However, Panthers linebacker Jon Beason intercepted the pass.

The Panthers got a John Kasay field goal out of it, then forced the Cardinals to punt on their final possession of the game.

But this is a brand new game on a brand new night. Besides, Arizona is undefeated in the playoffs.

Because kickoff with the Panthers isn't until 8:15 Saturday night, the Cardinals will fly to Charlotte on Saturday morning rather than on Friday.

Repeating: this is a totally different game.

In the NFL post season, a single-elimination tournament, the intensity level is not one, but two notches above the intensity level of a typical regular season game.  Mistakes are magnified and turnovers usually, but not always, tell the story.

No matter how joyful the Cardinals seem at apparently finding a running game last week in a wild-card victory against the Atlanta Falcons, quarterback Kurt Warner and a dangerous trio of receivers are Arizona's main offensive threats.

The Panthers, ranked 16th in the NFL in pass defense at 211.7 yards per game, know that they cannot completely shut down Warner and his three 1,000-yards-plus receivers: Larry Fitzgerald, Anquan Boldin, and Steve Breaston.

If Boldin is out, Arizona won’t change their game plan.  Basically, Carolina’s defensive backs need to be ready for Warner’s quick release and limit the YACs (yards after catch) by tackling well.

Jake Delhomme, Steve Smith, and Muhsin Muhammad just won’t be denied.  Delhomme and Muhammad are aging veterans who realize that this may be their last, best, and most realistic opportunity to win a Super Bowl.

The obvious: a veteran team at home like Carolina is completely different than a young, green Atlanta Falcons team on the road.

The Panthers are about their strong running game with Deangelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart behind an offensive line who improved in the last part of the regular season. 

I did not know this statistic, did you?  Delhomme finished with the second-most completions in the league over 25 yards, while guiding the Panthers' 10th ranked offense.

The defense has been inconsistent during the 2008 season, but they usually play just well enough to put the offense in position to run ball control and win the game. Julius Peppers is back and this will be Jon Beason’s first NFL playoff game. I do expect that Beason will make it a memorable one.

Carolina’s improved special teams seems to get overlooked, particularly the deep kick offs which force the opposition to begin a drive around the 20 to 30 yard line, rather than the 35 or 40.

Delhomme will make one critical mistake, probably a silly interception for an Arizona touchdown, in the first half. But the Panthers will control the tempo of the game and will prevail in the second half.

However, the Cardiac Cats seldom win comfortably, and this game will be decided late in the fourth quarter, if not overtime.

Analyze this: the Panthers' offense is a tough challenge for the Cardinals due to the combination of a powerful running game and a dangerous receiver. Williams and Stewart helped the Panthers pick up nearly five yards a carry while accumulating an average of 152.3 rushing yards per game.

With the Cardinals forced to commit seven or eight to the box, Steve Smith should take advantage of single coverage. Steve Smith has hovered above the 100-yard receiving mark in the past three games against the Cardinals, including 117 yards on five receptions with two touchdowns during their matchup earlier this season.

The Panthers had a tough time slowing the Cardinals down during the regular season match-up and Coach Whisenhunt may choose to use the no-huddle offense to get his unit into a chemistry  early.

However, the Panthers' defense will pressure, hurry, and force Warner into costly mistakes, and Carolina’s power running game will gradually wear down the Cardinals in the second half.

Simply, Carolina has a balanced-attack on offense and although Arizona’s running game improved against Atlanta, the Cardinal are generally a one-dimensional passing machine. The Cards will make some big plays, but not score enough points to win.

The Panthers own their home turf win a perfect 8-0 mark so far this season. Carolina was the lone team to go undefeated at home during the regular season.  I expect the trend will continue versus the Cardinals.

Remember the electric atmosphere at the Bank of America Stadium in the Monday Night Football victory over the Tama Bay Buccaneers?  Double that noise and excitement level for this Saturday night, rain or no rain.

If the Philadelphia Eagles defeat the defending Super Bowl Champions, the New York Giants, and if Carolina beats Arizona, the NFC Championship Game will be held in Charlotte.

But first things first. This game will be much closer than anticipated.

The Silver Fox Forecast:

Source: The Charlotte Observer



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