All eyes will be fixated on the AFC title game because it is Tom Brady facing off against Peyton Manning, and with both players entering the twilight of their careers, there can’t be too many of these matchups left.
But even with that storyline dominating headlines, the battle in the NFC has a chance to be the much more interesting matchup on the field. It's a game between the two best teams in the NFL, and the Cardinals and Panthers are set to put on a must-watch show Sunday.
Both teams sport incredibly balanced offenses that are led by MVP-caliber quarterbacks in Cam Newton—the likely winner—and Carson Palmer, while the defenses are two of the strongest overall units in the league.
Let’s take a look at what the teams are saying and predictions for what the offensive stars of both teams are going to do on the field statistically.
What They're Saying
When it comes to the Carolina Panthers offense, all roads seemingly go through Newton. The running game has been understated in its quality this season, but stopping the versatile quarterback is often the key to victory.
Too bad for the Arizona Cardinals that is easier said than done.
Newton scored 45 total touchdowns during the regular season and added another in the game against the Seahawks, so it is a safe bet that he will find his way to the end zone one way or another. The Cardinals defenders are well aware of the threat he poses, though, and are preparing in the hopes of containing his explosiveness.
“It’s like a double-edged sword with him, because he can run the ball or pass it out of any formation,” defensive end Frostee Rucker said, according to Darren Urban of AZCardinals.com. “That puts stress on the defense. We have to be disciplined. We have to put our hands where they are supposed to be, and technique-sound. Really contain him. You can’t really stop him.”
But according to a report from Panthers.com, it isn’t just the Cardinals defense that fears the Carolina offense, but Greg Olsen and the Panthers are equally aware of how good the Arizona defense has been this season:
They’re very good. They’re attacking, they play physical, they play hard, they’ve got a lot of speed. They’ve got some big boys up front that can really get after you both run and pass. They are good on the back end. They’ve got one of the best corners in the league. So, again, similar to last week. You look at all three levels. They’ve got great talent, they have a great scheme that they’ve been implementing there for a while, and they haven’t missed a beat. They’ve overcome a couple injuries as everyone has, and they are playing as well as anybody in the league on that side of the ball for sure.
This season has been all about Cam Newton reaching his full potential and absolutely dominating the league, but his rise to stardom has overshadowed Jonathan Stewart’s best season as a pro running back.
After spending years splitting time with DeAngelo Williams and dealing with numerous injuries, Stewart has been a standout on a team with a number of surprising stars and was arguably the offensive MVP against the Seattle Seahawks' vaunted run defense.
The Cardinals have a strong run defense as well, but expect Stewart to hit triple digits again and find the end zone at least once. But this game will be another stage for Newton to dominate on, and he should be the driving force behind Carolina’s offense.
He has been tough to stop all season and should be able to find the end zone at least twice against the Cardinals, whether it be through the air or on the ground. He might not put up huge numbers, but if he can find paydirt, Newton could make things hard on Arizona.
Newton should find Olsen for one score and either find his other on the ground or find Ted Ginn Jr. or Corey Brown for a second to keep the Panthers in the game against a bold Cardinal offense.
Cam Newton: 251 yards passing, 2 touchdowns, 73 yards rushing
Jonathan Stewart: 143 yards rushing, 1 touchdown, 18 yards receiving
Greg Olsen: 86 yards receiving, 1 touchdown
Ted Ginn Jr.: 71 yards receiving, 1 touchdown
Corey Brown: 43 yards receiving
In a similar manner to their opponents, the Cardinals have seen a stellar performance by their quarterback carry them to new heights while simultaneously overshadowing a surprisingly strong season on the ground.
While Chris Johnson was the guy at points during the regular season, David Johnson went from an unknown rookie to a burgeoning superstar with a strong three-game run in December. He wasn’t at his best against the Packers last week, but the third-round pick should be a focus against Carolina to keep the pressure off the passing attack. He has the ability to put up strong numbers.
Against the Packers, Palmer ended up having a fantastic day statistically, throwing for more than 300 yards and three touchdowns—even if he wasn’t at his best in terms of the eye test. But with a playoff win under his belt, the veteran quarterback should be able to find his receivers with ease and take advantage of the weakened Panthers pass defense.
Larry Fitzgerald was the star against Green Bay and has the chance to do so again in Carolina, but the game could rest on the shoulders of the young duo of John Brown and Michael Floyd.
If those two can step up, the Panthers don’t have enough talent in the secondary to cover all three receivers and David Johnson out of the backfield, making it easier for Palmer to put up a huge performance and lead Arizona to a victory.
Carson Palmer: 302 yards passing, 3 touchdowns
David Johnson: 58 yards rushing, 1 touchdown, 42 yards receiving
Larry Fitzgerald: 62 yards receiving, 1 touchdown
John Brown: 102 yards receiving, 2 touchdowns
Michael Floyd: 77 yards receiving