The Carolina Panthers have spent most of the 2015 season as the big dogs of the National Football League, thanks in large part to a defense that ranks sixth in the league in both yards and points allowed.
However, despite the presence of All-Pro cornerback Josh Norman, the Carolina secondary is the Achilles' heel of its defense, and that secondary faces its toughest test of the season Sunday in the one game standing between the Panthers and a berth in Super Bowl 50.
There hasn't been a better team at attacking defenses through the air this season than the Arizona Cardinals. The Cardinals rank second in the NFL in passing offense with 288.5 yards per game. Only the New England Patriots and New York Giants had more touchdown passes than Arizona's 35. And no team in the NFL averaged more yards per attempt than the Cardinals' 8.5.
Arizona doesn't just attack defenses through the air, though. It does so vertically, by running deep routes and picking up yardage in big chunks. Quarterback Carson Palmer deserves a good deal of the credit for the unit's success in that regard, as the 12th-year veteran has posted career bests nearly across the board in 2015.
Still, a quarterback is often only as good as the receivers he's throwing to, and much of Palmer's success this season can be tied directly to the plethora of weapons at his disposal.
In Michael Floyd, the Cardinals have a prototypical outside receiver. He has a combination of size (6'3") and speed (4.47-second 40-yard dash) that NFL teams drool over. And Floyd used both to his advantage in 2015, ranking fourth in the league (among receivers with 50 or more receptions) in yards per catch.
And he's not the fastest Arizona receiver by any stretch.
That would be second-year pro John Brown, who appears to be one of the bigger steals of the 2014 NFL draft. Brown piled up 1,003 yards and seven touchdowns on 65 catches in the regular season.
In fact, Palmer told Darren Urban of the team's website in October that he thinks Brown might just be the fastest player in the NFL.
He's, surprisingly, a great 50-50 ball guy and we all know that. We've seen him do it all training camp long. He runs very decisive routes. He catches the ball well. I've said it—I think he's the fastest player in the league. He's just a very well-rounded player and I expect to see him continue to grow more and more.
Eighteen times this season, Brown caught a pass that traveled at least 15 yards in the air, per ESPN's Josh Weinfuss.
Floyd had 18 such catches as well. As did Larry Fitzgerald.
Yeah, the Cardinals have him too.
It wasn't that long ago that whispers were circling that Fitzgerald's days in the desert might be numbered. Instead, the 12th-year veteran embraced a move inside to the slot and had one of the best seasons of a career that will probably culminate in his induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
A career-best 109 catches. Nine touchdowns. And his most receiving yards (1,215) since 2011.
Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians didn't mince words while speaking with Dan Bickley of the Arizona Republic:
"Any time we need a lift," Arians said, "I'm going to find some play on that sheet and get the ball to Larry."
All three receivers ranked among the top 25 players at the position in 2015, per Pro Football Focus.
This is without even mentioning youngsters like Jaron Brown and J.J. Nelson (who may be even faster than John Brown). Simply put, there isn't a deeper receiving corps in football than the Cardinals'. They can trot out a five-wide set in which any of the pass-catchers in the formation can legitimately hurt the opponent. And Palmer has done a phenomenal job exploiting mismatches and finding the open man.
Floyd detailed to Bob McManaman of the Arizona Republic how Palmer has spread the wealth:
The ball can be distributed any way. You never know who's going to have a breakout game. It could be Fitz one day. It could be John in the backfield, making plays. It could be anyone. Just knowing that you have that depth at any position at offense, and the ball can be distributed in any way, is a great thing to have.
[John Brown] is fast, so the faster he gets downfield, the more open the guys underneath get. There's a play, he's taking the top off the defense, and Fitz comes open underneath for a 25-yard gain. That's how it is some of the times. You're not going to be the main look for every single play, but you're the guy getting your other teammate open.
Weinfuss opined it's that diversity and cohesion that make the Cardinals receiving corps so dangerous:
One by one, their lockers are lined up like a murderers' row, of sorts. Fitzgerald. Michael Floyd. John Brown. Jaron Brown. J.J. Nelson. There isn't one specific thing that makes this group of receivers unique. It's five things. Each brings a specific trait and skill set to the Cardinals' offense. But to sum it up in one word, the Cardinals receivers' calling card is their diversity. While Fitzgerald can do it all, he has found success out of the slot—which is where his two catches in overtime against Green Bay came from. Floyd is the Cardinals' big-play threat. He can go up and over defensive backs when needed. John Brown has the speed and the hands to break off a big play on a deep route or a short one. Jaron Brown flies under radar in a wide receivers' room that features a future Hall of Famer but is generally a lesser-known reliable option. And Nelson, the rookie, hasn't been utilized since Week 13, but he has the fastest wheels on the team.
And that most certainly means trouble for Carolina.
Yes, in Norman the Panthers have one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL. Pro Football Focus ranked Norman tied for sixth at his position in 2015. His 54.0 passer rating against led the league.
Of course, Norman isn't the problem. The problem is that he's only one man.
Two of Carolina's top three cornerbacks (Robert McClain and Cortland Finnegan) were out of the NFL altogether until the Panthers were forced to sign them due to season-ending injuries to Bene Benwikere and Charles Tillman.
[Russell] Wilson repeatedly picked on CB Robert McClain and nickel Cortland Finnegan, both of whom struggled in the second half. Finnegan had a first-half interception, but he was beaten on a lot of routes and had a couple of missed tackles. Josh Norman wasn't tested a lot, but had a key sack of Wilson.
It's entirely possible the NFC Championship Game will play out similarly. Given the mismatches Palmer should be able to exploit, there's no need to tempt fate and target Norman.
Weinfuss wrote it will be Floyd who benefits:
Throughout his career, Fitzgerald has always drawn attention from defenses, but over the last three seasons, two of which he struggled to hit 800 yards, secondaries could stray away from focusing on him and get away from it. Not so much this season. He had the most catches of his career with 109 and showed in overtime on Saturday that he's still capable of making big plays in big games. But how does that impact Floyd? Greatly. With defenses forced to keep one eye on Fitzgerald at all times this season, Floyd has been the beneficiary with single coverages, which he can take advantage of on deep plays. His 12 catches for plays of 22 yards or longer—what the Cardinals consider explosive plays—are a team high, and his 18 receptions on passes that traveled at least 15 yards are tied with Fitzgerald and John Brown for the team lead, according to ESPN Stats & Information data. Because of his size—6'2", 220 pounds—he can outjump and overpower smaller defensive backs. And he has learned from Fitzgerald how to use his body, which gives him a rather unnoticed advantage.
However, Chris Wesseling of NFL.com disagreed:
Most useless storyline of the week: Larry Fitzgerald vs. Josh Norman matchup. Fitz lines up in slot 51.2%, Norman covers slot 1.4%.— Chris Wesseling (@ChrisWesseling) January 20, 2016
Panthers defensive end Kony Ealy told Bryan Strickland of the team's website the key to slowing the Cardinals down is getting in Palmer's face.
"We'll look at things he doesn't like that make him uncomfortable, and we'll see things that make him comfortable," Ealy said. "We're going to try to make him uncomfortable."
Who will win the NFC Championship Game?
Ealy is on to something. Whether or not the Carolina secondary passes its stiffest test of the season has as much to do with the players in front of them as the defensive backs themselves.
Get in Palmer's face and throw him off his game, and the most opportunistic defense in the NFL will have a solid chance to make the sort of play that often wins games between evenly matched opponents.
If it can't, and Palmer is allowed to progress through his reads, he'll cut the Panthers to pieces.
Because given Carolina's issues in the secondary and Arizona's depth at wideout, someone is going to be open downfield.
And just like in 2008, the Cardinals will leave Charlotte after ruining the fun for the NFC's top seed.
Gary Davenport is an NFL analyst at Bleacher Report and a member of the Fantasy Sports Writers Association and the Pro Football Writers of America. You can follow Gary on Twitter @IDPSharks.