Jonathan Stewart Is the Biggest Factor in the NFC Championship

David McCrackenFeatured ColumnistJanuary 19, 2016

Carolina Panthers running back Jonathan Stewart (28) heads for the end zone for a touchdown against the Seattle Seahawks during the first half of an NFL divisional playoff football game, Sunday, Jan. 17, 2016, in Charlotte, N.C. (AP Photo/Mike McCarn)
Mike McCarn/Associated Press

The Carolina Panthers had the NFL's second-best rushing attack during the regular season, and it wasn't just because of Cam Newton 

Jonathan Stewart led the Panthers in rushing this season, gaining 989 yards on the ground on 242 carries—an average of 4.1 yards per carry. While he only scored six touchdowns compared to Newton's 10, Stewart was they key to the running game for the Panthers, and that much remains the same in the postseason.  

Stewart earned 106 yards on 19 carries, including two scores before twisting his ankle in last Sunday's 31-24 victory over the Seattle Seahawks. Fortunately for the Panthers, Stewart's injury is not severe and will be all systems go against the Arizona Cardinals, according to Carolina head coach Ron Rivera. NFL on ESPN highlighted Stewart's game stats against the Seahawks:

“Somebody had rolled onto [Stewart's] ankle. It wasn’t the foot,” Rivera said to Jonathan Jones of the Charlotte Observer. “The way it was explained to me, it was a little bit sore, but he’ll be fine.”  

Before the ankle issue arose against the Seahawks, Stewart busted a 59-yard run on the game's opening play, which the Sports Daily provided highlights of:

The Panthers averaged 142.6 yards per game rushing the ball during the regular season and have accumulated the most first downs in the league off rushing plays (136) as well, according to Carolina is also tied with the Buffalo Bills and Kansas City Chiefs for the lead in rushing touchdowns with 19 apiece.  

It's hard to predict this early in the week what Rivera means by Stewart being "fine" for the NFC Championship Game against the Cardinals, but one thing is certain: an 80 percent healthy Stewart is better than a 100 percent Fozzy Whittaker. 

This isn't to say Whittaker is, by any means, a bad running back—he averaged 4.3 ypc this season. But Whitaker doesn't have the same chemistry in the backfield as Stewart has. Repetitions at practice and in games really mean something when the read-option is an essential part of a team's offense. 

Stewart had a strong performance against the Seahawks' front seven and will have to face another difficult front against the Cardinals who ranked sixth in the league during the regular season in opponent rushing yards per game (91.2). ESPN Stats & Info noted Stewart had record-setting performance against the Seahawks:

However, the Cardinals' rush defense didn't have a very strong showing against the Green Bay Packers in the NFC divisional round as it surrendered 135 yards to the Packers on 22 carries—an average of 6.1 ypc.  

That game may have just been an exception, and according to Carolina offensive coordinator Mike Shula, the Panthers should not think the Cardinals are a pushover.  

"They get a lot of guys around the ball," Shula said to Fox Sports' Alex Marvez. "They're good tacklers. Their linebackers are downhill players. And they are very aggressive."  

Newton had a poor rushing performance against the Seahawks, mostly because he was able to have his way in the first half through the air, while Stewart racked up yards on the ground.  

It'll be interesting to see how Carolina's offense reacts against Arizona's aggressive defensive line, but if the Panthers are to be successful and book their tickets to the Super Bowl, Stewart will have to find the gaps and penetrate through the line of scrimmage en route to another 100-plus-yard performance.