Panthers-Cardinals: Making a Statement

Scott Z BradyCorrespondent IOctober 31, 2009

CHARLOTTE, NC - JANUARY 10: Dante Rosario #88 of the Carolina Panthers is tackled by Antrel Rolle #21 of the Arizona Cardinals during the NFC Divisional Playoff Game on January 10, 2009 at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, North Carolina.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
The Cardinals have had two straight ‘statement’ games, and came through with increasing volume with each.
Their slapping around of former perennial division champ Seattle said in no uncertain terms, that the Cardinals WILL defend their division title.
They did so in a 27-3 shellacking up in the great Northwest, where the 12th man was used to going home happy as the Big Dread suffered another painfully long plane-ride home, drove the message home clearly.
Last Sunday night in the Meadowlands, they screamed it in the ears of all that yes, they DO plan on being around in the fight for the conference crown, too!
Their drubbing of the Giants, at home and when their 5-1 team was supposed to be ‘focused’ and (presumably) pissed after suffering their first loss the week before, put the Cards back in almost everyone's ‘weekly top 10, and made even the most cynical take notice.
But as fellow blogger Chris Farmer points out, this has always been a ‘trap game’ for the Cards. They play and beat someone who gets the fans all in a tizzy, only to get rolled at home like a rich, drunken tourist (My words, not Chris’s) the following weekend. 
But I believe this is a different Cardinals team than we’ve seen in the past. This isn’t a pretender. This is actually a team worthy of going to last year's Super Bowl, and talent-wise, matches up with anyone in the NFL
I know.. I know. Fan bias and all that.
But I don’t think so. Those that know me, know my work and know my history regarding my Cardinals prognostication, know that I'm more cynical, if anything.
In fact, since their playoff win in Dallas following the 1998 season, I’ve picked the Cardinals to have a winning record only twice. In 1999, and this year. 
That said, this is every bit a "statement" game as the last one. This is another hurdle the Cardinals need to get over to continue they assent-ion upward among the NFL elite. 
And I believe that they’ll do it. Trap game, to be sure. But this...THIS Cardinals team is just a good, quality football team. And I firmly believe they’ll come in and do what needs to be done. I don’t think it’ll even be very close.
When the Cardinals Have the Ball
Who can forget last years ‘turning point’ Divisional Playoff game in Carolina? The 10-point underdog Cardinals rode into Bank of America Stadium, and rolled out with a shot at a Conference Title by pasting 33 points in a 20 point win on the previously unbeaten-at-home Panthers. 
WR Larry Fitzgerald was a human highlight film, and became a household name when he put up 166 yards and a ridiculous acrobatic touchdown while hauling in eight Kurt Warner passes. 
The Panthers haven’t played very well this year, but they have been quite successful in pass defense. They will bring the leagues top rated pass D into UoP Stadium on Sunday, giving up a stingy 149 YPG, almost 20 less than Fitz alone snagged that fateful day. 
But (yes, there’s always a ‘but’) they have played a very soft schedule, at least from an offensive standpoint. They beat Washington and Tampa Bay, and have lost and/or gotten drilled by Atlanta, Dallas, Philadelphia, and most recently Buffalo
The Eagles' Donovan McNabb needed only 79 yards passing for Philly to put up 38 points. So pure numbers, as you know, can be deceiving. 
The Cardinals have an opportunity to beat a good team and do so by utilizing what could be a major team strength at some point.
Get a ground game going against Carolina’s 20th ranked rushing defense to set up play action against that lofty No. 1 rated passing defense. 
Panthers coach John Fox said Wednesday that starting FS Charles Godfrey wouldn’t play, which can only help provide opportunities over the middle for the likes of Anquan Boldin and Steve Breaston.
Cards DE Mike Gandy gets no breaks this week either. After lining up opposite the likes of Dwight Freeney, Mario Williams, and Osi Umenyiora in recent weeks, he gets a rejuvenated Julius Peppers Sunday. Peppers has been on a bit of a tear, and keeping him off Warner’s back is key.
If last Sunday was any indication, expect to see RB Beanie Wells even more often. Cards head coach Ken Whisenhunt said that the depth chart hasn’t changed, and Tim Hightower will start. 
But I have to think that, had Beanie not fumbled following a Hightower fumble that launched Wells onto the field in the first place, he may have been the starter this week.
However, its hard to make a point to a player in that way when the backup commits the same maddening, frustrating infraction. 
These fumbles are an Achilles heel that the Cards have (luckily) been able to get away with more often than not. That can’t continue. As the season goes along and the games get tougher, those can and will mean the difference between a win and a loss.

When the Panthers Have the Ball
Speaking of Achilles heel’s, the ‘2‘ in Carolina’s solid 1-2 RB punch that includes DeAngelo Williams as the ‘1‘, Jonathan Stewart missed practice this week with a painful Achilles injury, and is listed as questionable for the game. 
Fox also announced on Wednesday that the $43 million man, QB Jake Delhomme will start for the Panthers. He says that Delhomme gives Carolina its best chance to win. He’s right.
I know that doesn’t say a lot for backups AJ Feeley and Matt Moore the way Delhomme has played this year.
It seems as though the Cards ruined him when they picked off five of his passes last January. He hasn’t been the same since. But he is a former Pro-bowler, and can be dangerous if he gets on a roll.
Steve Smith, who almost annually abuses Cards defenders, was basically shut down in that game too. The Panthers will need Smith to find a way to get open if they’re to have even a chance of keeping up with the Cards offense. 
Coach Fox also said that WR Mushin Muhammad missed practice this week because of a sprained knee, and won’t play. He will likely be replaced by Dwayne Jarret. That won’t make life any easier for Smith. Or Delhomme.
But Jake Delhomme’s troubles aside, the Panthers still have a good running game, averaging 128+ yards per game. DeAngelo Williams is averaging over 4 yards per carry, and if Stewart (and his 4.8 YPC average) can find his way into the field, it would be a pretty solid test for the NFL’s top rated run defense. The loss of Stewart won’t make Williams job any easier as well. 
The Panthers are -14 in turnover ratio, and the Cardinals ball-hawk defense is just the kind of thing that can make this game get ugly in a hurry. If Carolina wants to even stay in the game, Delhomme needs to avoid picks (14 already, to 4 TDs).
Special Teams and Coaching
The Cardinals have been playing well on special teams. Nothing special every game (although there have been several game changers), but solid play and avoidance of allowing the big play.
Coach Whiz has been doing quite well, TYVM, in his play calling in general. Although it seems he has had one or two head scratchers.
But they have been ready from the opening kickoff, well prepared for each opponent, and we’ve seen some fun, creative play calling too. Not much more you can ask from a coaching staff, eh?
On the other hand, Fox is officially on the proverbial hot seat. That the Panthers have lost their bite isn’t really the fault of Fox, it’s the coach that gets the pink slip, not the $43 million recently re-signed quarterback. 
Fox will use last year's playoff spanking as motivation. And he should. That's about all he has from a coaching standpoint. I mean, Carolina is already 3.5 games behind the Saints in the NFC South. And the future depends on Delhomme’s arm. 
Maybe getting fired isn’t such a bad thing after all. 
Cardinals 31 - Panthers 15