Let Las Vegas tell it, and the Carolina Panthers will take down the Arizona Cardinals in the NFC Championship Game Sunday by a field goal.
If only it were that easy, right?
Bettors on the hunt for a bargain this late in the NFL timeline won't find one. The Cam Newton-led Panthers might be at home after a 15-1 campaign, but the Carson Palmer-led Cardinals look every bit as impressive with all the matching traits to make this a close game.
When: Sunday, January 24 at 6:40 p.m. ET
Where: Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, North Carolina
Spread: Carolina (-3)
Oddsmakers won't budge on the over/under here, which makes plenty of sense.
These are big names going against elite defenses, sure, but bettors shouldn't blink about taking the over. ESPN Stats & Info provided the perfect reasoning:
This is all about the quarterbacks, of course. Palmer and Newton make for the first-ever playoff meeting between Heisman Trophy-winning quarterbacks.
Palmer leaned on Larry Fitzgerald and his cohorts to throw for 4,671 yards and 35 touchdowns to 11 interceptions. As impressive as that is, Newton entered the season without top target Kelvin Benjamin and still accounted for 45 total touchdowns, with 3,837 yards coming through the air and another 636 on the ground.
So bettors can expect plenty of offense, even though these two defenses finished the season right next to one another in scoring defense. Carolina came in sixth at 19.3 points per game allowed and Arizona seventh at 19.6.
The tricky part of what looks like a close matchup, at least for bettors, is nailing down the pick against the spread. Carolina by a field goal at home makes sense from an oddsmakers' perspective, but bettors might want to look harder at Palmer and the visitors.
Namely, Palmer's depth of weapons against the Carolina defense. These Cardinals aren't foreigners to the idea of facing a top-tier cornerback such as Carolina's Josh Norman.
Palmer said as much in the buildup to the game, according to NFL.com's Chris Wesseling:
Carson Palmer on Josh Norman: “If anybody reminds you of @RSherman_25, it’s him.”— Chris Wesseling (@ChrisWesseling) January 20, 2016
No kidding—in two games against those Seahawks, Palmer tossed four touchdowns to two interceptions and only suited up for one half in one of those games.
Now look at the Carolina defense. Down its top two corners after Norman on the depth chart, the Panthers have allowed the last three quarterbacks they've faced—Matt Ryan, Jameis Winston and Russell Wilson—to throw for more than 300 yards. That's something Palmer has done 10 times this year.
Odd as it sounds, this is one of the rare games this season where Newton might have to compensate for a sluggish defense. Not only is the secondary hobbled, the pass rush will miss Jared Allen, who can't give it a go due to injury, according to Steve Reed of the Associated Press.
To make matters worse, the Carolina defense has developed a penchant for blowing second-half leads as of late. This was no greater personified than Seattle's 24-0 second-half run last week. Carolina won, but Arizona won't cough up an insurmountable lead to start Sunday's affair.
Even those thinking the snow-riddled weather would give the Panthers an advantage—letting them lean on Jonathan Stewart and his 989 yards and six scores—are a tad misguided.
ESPN.com's Josh Weinfuss explained why the Cardinals are better prepared for a slick, cold game than most would expect:
But the Cardinals have played in colder conditions more often this season than the Panthers.
Both have played in four games where temperatures were below 55 degrees at kickoff, according to NFL statistics. But Arizona played in three games in conditions colder than 50 degrees – at Pittsburgh, at Seattle and at Philadelphia. Carolina has played in two.
The little things dominate a conference title game. Newton might be at home and coming off an incredible year, but he's also coming off a performance in which he posted just 161 passing yards and a touchdown against a strong defense while managing just three rushing yards on 11 carries.
For bettors, the outright pick has to be the Cardinals. Palmer's surrounded by the deepest set of weapons the league has to offer this year, a set lining up against an elite corner and a pair of backups who have consistently struggled when it matters.
The Cardinals won't have that problem, road contest or not. Look for Palmer and the Cardinals to pull away late while the Carolina defense collapses again.
Prediction: Cardinals 28, Panthers 24