Somehow, someway, the NFL coughed up an NFC Championship Game matchup that matches the big-fight feel of perhaps the final Peyton Manning-Tom Brady encounter thanks to a showdown between the Arizona Cardinals and Carolina Panthers.
The NFC title game couldn't have a better matchup. Quarterback Carson Palmer's been borderline unstoppable for the Cardinals when healthy, and so too has his Panthers counterpart, Cam Newton, who looks like the league MVP after leading a sluggish supporting cast.
Bleacher Report's Brad Gagnon hit the proverbial nail on the head as to why this one's so special:
The Panthers are 21-2 since December of 2014, while the Cardinals are 26-5 with Palmer at quarterback since October of 2013.— Brad Gagnon (@Brad_Gagnon) January 17, 2016
Below, let's look at how Las Vegas feels about the encounter and offer some projections as to how this one figures to play out.
When: Sunday, January 24 at 6:40 p.m. ET
Where: Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, North Carolina
Spread: Carolina (-3)
Palmer Exploits Weak Carolina Secondary
Look, the Carolina secondary isn't weak overall, but it is now that the injury bug has struck at the worst possible time.
Josh Norman might be the best corner in football, but look around—he's flanked by street free agent Cortland Finnegan and iffy safeties Roman Harper and Kurt Coleman with big names like Charles Tillman out of the picture.
Carolina keeps winning, sure, but look at how the last three quarterbacks to face the Carolina secondary have fared:
That's an interesting hodgepodge of names to say the least, and each went for more than 300 passing yards against the unit. A guy who can reliably lean on a strong supporting cast and complement those yardage numbers with touchdowns would have a big game.
That guy is Carson Palmer.
Palmer completed 63.7 percent of his passes this year with 4,671 yards and 35 touchdowns to 11 interceptions. As a brief example, in two games against a strong Seattle Seahawks secondary, he totaled four touchdowns to two interceptions, three of those scoring tosses coming on the road.
How could Palmer not post gaudy numbers? He's got Larry Fitzgerald, who sits on 109 catches for 1,215 yards and nine scores. John Brown, one of the game's best deep threats, has 65 for 1,003 and seven. The reliable Michael Floyd isn't far off at 52 for 849 and six. David Johnson out of the backfield presents a serious threat too at 36 for 457 and four.
Road game or not, Palmer has the means to exploit the hobbled Cardinals and post huge numbers, if not control the clock outright, while his elite complementary defense stuffs the Panthers offense.
Newton Struggles to Keep Pace
Nothing can undermine what Newton did this year.
He's the first quarterback in NFL history to toss 35 scores and rush for 10 more. He led the Panthers to a 15-1 record while playing without lead wideout Kelvin Benjamin, making Ted Ginn Jr. the No. 1 option at the position.
An incredible feat, no doubt, but the right defense can shutter the attack. An Arizona defense ranked eighth against the pass led by an elite defensive back such as Patrick Peterson can shut down Ginn and funnel the ball to tight end Greg Olsen, who won't be beating anybody down the field.
And while lead back Jonathan Stewart put on a strong show this year with 989 yards and six scores, a struggling passing attack might mean obvious runs right into the jaws of a unit that also happened to rank sixth against the rush.
It doesn't help that Newton and Co. haven't inspired much in the way of confidence as of late, not after allowing Seattle to rattle off 24 straight points in the second half of last week's eventual win while the Carolina offense posted a goose egg.
Call it a criticism head coach Ron Rivera has to continue to hear about, though he admits it's understandable.
"I'll be honest, I get it, I understand," Rivera said, according to ESPN.com. "But, shoot, we won those football games and look at who we played against. Am I concerned? Yeah. But are these things correctable and fixable? Most certainly. Let's stay focused on what we did—we won the football game."
All of the above presents a volatile mixture for the Panthers—and especially Newton, who fittingly faces his toughest task of all this weekend.
It would be silly to suggest the Panthers get blown away here at home.
The defense remains opportunistic, and Newton will help keep the contest close. But the Arizona defense gets a free pass to key in on his versatile ways while not worrying too much about his options through the air.
On the flip side, all Palmer has to do is make smart decisions with the football and lean on his star-studded cast of weapons to keep things moving against a struggling unit.
In the end, Palmer will be able to keep the Panthers at arm's length while grinding out the win.
Prediction: Cardinals 28, Panthers 24