Las Vegas declares the Carolina Panthers the favorites against the Arizona Cardinals in Sunday's NFC Championship Game.
Why not? Carolina's at home with Cam Newton under center, the guy who figures to run away with the MVP award after totaling 45 touchdowns over a 15-1 campaign before mopping up the Seattle Seahawks in the postseason last weekend.
That's fair, but Carson Palmer and the Cardinals have something to say to oddsmakers. Palmer posted one of the best years of his career on the way to his first playoff win while hitting the 13-win mark with one of the deepest rosters in the league.
Call it an impossible task for bettors. Here's odds advice for the epic matchup.
When: Sunday, January 24, at 6:40 p.m. ET
Where: Bank of America Stadium, Charlotte, North Carolina
Spread: Carolina (-3)
Las Vegas seems to have found itself a sweet spot.
Carolina's at home, which certainly helps. Newton threw for 3,837 yards and 35 scores with another 636 yards and 10 scores on the ground, while his defense finished sixth in scoring at 19.3 points allowed per game.
And don't forget lead back Jonathan Stewart, who ran for 989 yards and six scores this year, helping Newton forget he didn't have Kelvin Benjamin on the field. Stewart was especially impressive against an elite Seattle defense last weekend, rushing 19 times for 106 yards and two scores.
The line here also helps smooth over some of Carolina's issues, such as, say, falling silent in the second half of that win against the Seahawks, who rattled off 24 unanswered points in the second half to make the final tally 31-24.
Other than inconsistency in the postseason last week, the close odds also make up for another large factor—the quality of the opponent. ESPN.com's David Newton added detail:
The Panthers are preparing for an aggressive Arizona defense that arguably blitzes more than any team they have faced this season. Quarterback Cam Newton will be in the offensive game-planning room as he is on most Tuesdays helping coaches decide what works best. Newton has been solid at handling pressure this season, but this may be his biggest test.
Arizona certainly deserves to have such a close line.
The defense finished right behind Carolina at 19.6 points permitted, while the notable rush tallied 36 sacks and 19 interceptions, perhaps highlighted by holding Aaron Rodgers of the Green Bay Packers to a 24-of-44 line last weekend in a 26-20 overtime win.
Palmer deserves most of the credit, of course, after completing 63.7 percent of his passes with 35 scores in the regular season. His array of weapons through the air spreads out even the best defenses well:
The Cardinals look like the total package. Also helping to keep the odds close is the fact head coach Bruce Arians' team put on such a show on the road this year.
ESPN.com's Josh Weinfuss provided the insight:
The Cardinals went 7-1 on the road this year, losing at Pittsburgh in Week 6. They’ve scored more points on the road (262) than at home (227), which was highlighted by five away games of 30 or more points -- including three of 40 or more points at Chicago, Detroit and Philadelphia. (Remember, they scored 39 at Seattle.)
Granted, the road schedule wasn't too difficult for Arizona. But the team deserves plenty of credit for taking care of business in mostly dominant fashion.
The Cardinals play the same brand of football as the Panthers. Both teams want to run the football, whether it's with an array of backs or even quarterbacks. Both lean on strong defenses and air it out when pockets of opportunity form down the field.
Hence the over/under. Both offenses seem accustomed to blowing opponents away, but that simply won't be the case when these two defenses get together for the first time this year. Really, maybe 10 total points in the first half while the two feel each other out wouldn't seem shocking.
Perhaps the most underrated element of this contest resides in the Carolina secondary.
Josh Norman might just be the best cornerback in the league. But he's only one man, and it has shown in recent weeks—over its past three games, the injured Carolina secondary has allowed a trio of 300-yard passers, including rookie Jameis Winston.
Now think about what the experienced Palmer will be able to do when the league's deepest offensive arsenal lines up and stretches out the hobbled unit.
Long story short, Arizona's defense can key on Newton thanks to the lack of playmakers on the Carolina offense. Palmer's unit doesn't have that problem and gets to go against a struggling secondary. Look for him to steal the lead and win late despite the odds.
Prediction: Cardinals 28, Panthers 24