Panthers-Cardinals: NFC Divisional Playoff Preview

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Panthers-Cardinals: NFC Divisional Playoff Preview

The Carolina Panthers will face off against the Arizona Cardinals in the first divisional playoff game ever played at Bank of America Stadium Saturday night. 

Last week: The Panthers, the No. 2 seed in the NFC, enjoyed a bye week that allowed them to get healthy.  The Cardinals thumped the Falcons in the Wild Card Round at home for their first playoff win since 1998 and first home playoff win in the last 60 years or so.

Okay, instead of writing a generic preview I'm going to try putting together a scouting report on both teams like Scouts, Inc. does for each NFL game every week.  Here goes...

 

Quarterbacks

The Panthers' Jake Delhomme has traditionally played well in the postseason.  In two playoff appearances, he led the Panthers to the Super Bowl in 2003 (where they lost in the closing seconds to the Patriots) and the NFC Championship Game in 2005.

Delhomme is 5-2 all-time in the playoffs, and only former Packers great Bart Starr and 49ers legend Joe Montana have better postseason passer ratings than his 97.2.

During the regular season Delhomme had a tendency to force throws to Steve Smith instead of throwing the ball away when nothing was open.  It didn't help that the normally sure-handed Muhsin Muhammad dropped more balls than any Panthers fan cares to think about.

There has also been talk throughout the season about how Delhomme sometimes throws a lot of interceptions at the wrong time.  That's not really true.  Yes, he threw four interceptions against the Raiders.  But he was only picked off 12 times during the regular season.  It's just that his spattering of 15 touchdowns made that number seem bigger. 

Most of the interceptions I remember Delhomme throwing, though, were either way under-thrown (these were earlier in the season when he was likely still getting his surgically repaired elbow back into top game condition), or tipped.  But he threw fewer and fewer interceptions as the season progressed.  He hasn't made a lot of bad decisions.  He's not as bad of a quarterback as a lot of people think.   

Arizona's Kurt Warner has had just as much playoff success as Delhomme, and even a little more.  He owns a 6-2 career record in January and February, and his passer rating of 92.5 is third among active quarterbacks whose teams are in the playoffs. 

But he also won the Super Bowl in 1999.

Warner has the quickest release in the NFL, so the Panthers' pass rush will need to get to him faster than they have gotten to the quarterback all season.  He's also stunningly accurate, as is shown by his 67 percent completion rate during the regular season and his passer rating of 96.9, which was the third-highest in the NFL this year.

Edge: Cardinals

Running Backs

The Panthers' DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart—"Double Trouble"—are one of the deadliest running duos in the NFL, if not the deadliest.  The two backs combined for 2,437 yards and 30 touchdowns in the regular season while fumbling only four times, the tied for the fewest in the league among teams with at least 500 carries.

Williams, the starter, shattered lots of Panthers rushing records this season on his way to 1,515 yards and 18 touchdowns on the ground.  He also leads the NFL in average yards per carry, 5.5.  That's more than half a yard better than the next-best figure, 4.9.

Williams has highly commendable speed, better shiftiness than just about anyone in the NFL (he can turn a minus-yards run into a touchdown with one cutback at times), incredible vision, and surprising power for a guy so small (he's 5'9" and 217 lbs). 

Stewart had the best season of any rookie RB in Panthers history, rushing for 836 yards and 10 touchdowns in addition to averaging 4.5 yards per running attempt.  He packs truck-like power and superb speed for a guy who's supposed to be a power back. 

If you give him a hole, Stewart will probably run over any linebackers or defensive backs in his way for a healthy gain.

The Cardinals' have a running game held together by a couple paper clips—a star past his prime and a possible star of the future—if he played for another team.

The Cardinals' top two rushers—Edgerrin James and Tim Hightower—combined for 276 carries amassing 913 yards and 13 touchdowns.

Edge is 30, supposedly the dying age for running backs, and past his prime.  He rushed for 73 yards against the Falcons last week, and that performance was treated as though it was his best game in years. 

Tim Hightower's only impressive regular-season stat was his 10 touchdowns.  All he can do is score from inside the five.

Just putting this out there...the Cardinals' 96-yard performance last week against a flat-footed Falcons defense last week was hailed like a 300-yard performance would have been for a team that's good at running the ball.  Plus, the Cardinals finished the season ranked dead last in the NFL in rushing yards per game, 73.6. 

That gives you a pretty good idea of how bad Arizona's running offense is.

Edge: Panthers  

 

Wide Receivers

The Panthers' Steve Smith is one of the most electrifying playmakers in the NFL.  His combination of demon speed, jumping ability, quickness, strength, and competitive fire make him one of the toughest covers in the league.

Even after missing the first two games of the regular season and playing in a run-heavy offense, Smith finished third in the league with 1421 receiving yards.  He also caught six touchdown passes and averaged the most yards per catch of anyone with 75 or more receptions.

Smith is also adequate in run-blocking on the outside, though nowhere near as good as Muhammad.

Muhsin Muhammad, while susceptible to drops, has size that makes him a reliable target for important third-down conversions.  Muhammad's strength and footwork allows him to block exceedingly well on the outside, and he is a major reason why the Panthers broke off so many long runs during the regular season.

Dwayne Jarrett is also a decent possession receiver due to his large frame and good hands.

Tight end Jeff King has made some plays this year, mostly on streak routes.

The Cardinals have a three-headed receiving monster—Larry Fitzgerald, Anquan Boldin, and Steve Breaston.

Fitzgerald is Arizona's go-to receiver, especially if the Cardinals need a big play.  His size, hands, strength, and balance allow him to get great position on the defensive back covering him, make unbelievable catches, and pick up tons of yards after the catch or even first contact.  If it's possible to reel in a long pass, Fitzgerald will probably get the job done.

Fitzgerald leads the Cardinals with 96 receptions for 1431 yards and 12 touchdowns.

Boldin plays very smart.  He sees the defense, figures out where the holes will be, and takes advantage.  For that reason, he's often wide open and can easily pick some yards up after the catch. 

Boldin missed four games because of injuries this year and he still accumulated 1038 yards and 11 touchdowns.

Breaston has an uncanny knack for getting just enough of a beat on his man to make the grab.  He runs great routes, always positions himself well to make the catch, and has great concentration.  Breaston also weighs less than Boldin and Fitzgerald, but he trades strength for speed.  Plus, he's got great hands.

Breaston had his breakout season this year, registering 77 catches for 1006 yards and three scores. 

Jerheme Urban, who has nice speed and agility, could do some damage in four-wide receiver sets.

Edge: Cardinals

Offensive Line

The Panthers' line is nasty, physical, and dominating.  They have opened giant holes for Williams and Stewart all year, paving the way for a ground game that averages 152 yards per game.  The early-season problem with false-starts has mostly been put to rest.  Pass-protection is fantastic; Delhomme has only been sacked 20 times and has gotten ample time to throw except against the best defenses.

The left side of the line is particularly strong, with franchise tackle Jordan Gross and breakout guard Travelle Wharton.  Behemoth RT Jeff Otah keeps Delhomme's blindside clear and uses his size well when he run-blocks. 

Starting right guard Keydrick Vincent suffered a groin injury against the Broncos in Week 15 that forced his placement on injured reserve.  However, everyone who has filled in an that position has done a fine job. 

With the exception of the Bucs game in Week Six and Minnesota in Week Three, the Panthers' offensive line has turned in many bang-up jobs, even though all of the starting offensive linemen have missed at least one game due to injury.

The Cardinals' offensive line hasn't been anything spectacular.  The running game is technically the worst in the NFL, and the running backs combine for 3.35 yards per carry. 

Even though Hightower, the short-yardage specialist between he and James, only averages 2.8 yards per carry.  A good offensive line would probably be able to create enough room for him to pick up at least three yards per carry in short-yardage situations.

True, Arizona's offensive line has only given up 28 sacks.  But they block for the quarterback who probably has the quickest release in the NFL.  He almost never holds the ball for longer than a second-and-a-half, and he usually gets it out before that.  A good offensive line blocking for a QB like Warner should probably be in the top five in the league in fewest sacks allowed, not tied for 11th.

Edge: Panthers  

 

Defensive Line

Panthers DE Julius Peppers reached a career high in sacks this season, 14.5.  But he can not only pass-rush, but drop back into coverage, pursue the ball carrier to make a tackle for loss, and get his hands up to deflect passes.  His athleticism is unparalleled.

Other than Peppers, there isn't much in the way of pass-rushing.  End Charles Johnson has six sacks, which ranks second on the team. 

Ma'ake Kemoeatu, the primary run stopper, should be healthy and his 6'5", 345-lb frame is a major part of the Panthers' run defense.  Damione Lewis, with 43 tackles, is also a decent, if undersized, run stopper because of his quickness in getting off blocks and tackling ability.

The Cardinals don't have any truly dangerous pass-rushers, but they do have six players with four or five sacks.  DE Bertrand Berry leads the team with five sacks.

DT Darnell Dockett, who has 49 tackles, is the most notable run-stopper for the Cardinals.

The Cardinals are not going to get off the ball as fast as they did against the Falcons.  That means slower penetration into the backfield and more time and space for the Panthers' offense to work.

Edge: Panthers  

Linebackers

The Panthers' Jon Beason finished the regular season ranked third in the NFL in tackles with 138, and Thomas Davis was ranked 20th.  The Panthers had the only linebacking corps in the league to have two players finish the regular season in the NFL Top 20 in tackles.

Davis also was the team's third-best pass-rusher.  He had four sacks. 

The Panthers' linebackers overall has been diagnosed by many sports writers as the fastest they've ever had. 

However, as fast as these guys are, they have to learn to control their speed.  Panthers' linebackers have used their speed to get into good position to make a play only to skid right past the ball carrier and miss the chance at a tackle for a loss.

The Cardinals' Karlos Dansby had 119 tackles, which tied him for 14th in the NFL.  Dansby is one of those guys I mentioned before who has four sacks.

MLB Gerald Hayes ranks third on the team with 88 tackles.  He's also forced four fumbles.

OLB Chike Okeafor has 4.5 sacks.

Edge: Panthers 

 

Defensive Backs

Panthers CB Chris Gamble's 93 tackles were tied for 10th in the NFL in the regular season.  He also deflected 21 passes, easily a career high, and picked off three passes.

Gamble is usually excellent in coverage, and he doesn't give up many big plays.  His play was so good this year that strong safety Chris Harris, who plays behind Gamble, only notched 70 tackles and forced two fumbles.  In 2007 his numbers were much better. 

But if the cornerback takes care of the play, what's left for the safety to do?

Ken Lucas and Charles Godfrey, the defensive backs who play on the opposite side of the field, are a different story.  Lucas' coverage skills were suspect all through the regular season, and Godfrey is still learning on the job.  The lack of chemistry between the two sometimes resulted in assignment mix-ups and led to big plays for the other team.

The Cardinals' cornerbacks, Roderick Hood and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, are nothing special.  They have 82 tackles and five interceptions between them.  Their coverage skills are average and often get beat, leaving the safeties to get the job done.

Fortunately for the Cardinals, safeties Adrian Wilson and Antrel Rolle do pretty well.  The two combined for 164 tackles in the regular season.  Clearly they can both tackle effectively and have good range.

Edge: Cardinals

Special Teams

The Panthers' Rhys Lloyd can absolutely boom the ball on kickoffs.  There's a reason why the Panthers dominate the rest of the NFL when it comes to touchbacks and are fourth in the NFL in average kickoff distance, 66.8 yards.

The Panthers' punt team should be just a little bit better than the Cardinals' because Carolina's defense is just a tad better.

Both the Panthers' John Kasay and the Cardinals' Neil Rackers have missed three field goals and become less accurate when kicking from further out.

Edge: Panthers

 

Coaching

Both times that the Panthers went to the playoffs before now under head coach John Fox they advanced to at least the NFC Championship Game.  Fox has also experienced great playoffs success in other positions with other teams, including the Giants.

Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt has won the Super Bowl as the Steelers' offensive coordinator near the start of Big Ben's career.  His offensive averaged 27 points per game in the playoffs that year.

Edge: Panthers

 

Prediction

Both teams have a proficient offense.  But, no matter what the Cardinals did to an inexperienced, flat-footed Falcons team last week, their offense is less balanced than the Panthers'.  

Both defenses are about even, and the Panthers' may even be slightly better with Delhomme switching up the snap counts, unlike Matt Ryan.  

The Panthers have the advantage in the special teams battle.    

Plus, the Cardinals are 0-5 so far this season on the East Coast.

The Panthers should win.

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