The Carolina Panthers will host the Arizona Cardinals Sunday at Bank of America Stadium. It will mark the eighth meeting all-time between the two teams. The Panthers hold a 5-2 record in the previous seven meetings, including a 25-10 victory last year in Phoenix.
In that contest, Vinny Testaverde made his Panthers debut and threw for 206 yards and a touchdown. DeAngelo Williams had a career high, 121-yard rushing performance that included a franchise high 75-yard run. The Panthers' defense picked off Tim Rattay three times, with two coming at the hands of Deke Cooper. Kurt Warner, the Cardinals starting quarterback on Sunday, came into the game late and lost a fumble to Julius Peppers.
The Panthers have been dominant in this series over the last few years. Carolina has won four straight and Arizona hasn’t defeated the Panthers since Oct. 6th, 2002.
Panthers starting quarterback Jake Delhomme is 3-0 all-time against Arizona since coming to Carolina. Peppers has also been a factor in this series, with four and a half sacks over the course of the Panthers’ win streak. In fact, the entire Carolina defensive front has been outstanding at putting pressure on Cardinals quarterbacks in recent history, amassing 13 sacks in the last five games between the teams.
On the other side of the ball, the story has been the receivers. Steve Smith is averaging eight receptions per game in the last four against Arizona, while the Cardinals’ wide-out tandem of Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald has combined for 45 receptions for 635 yards and three touchdowns in the last three games against Carolina.
This week’s matchup will be a different story. Both the Cardinals and Panthers enter Sunday’s game at the top of their divisions. The Panthers share the top spot in the NFC South with the Buccaneers, while the Cardinals rest comfortably atop the NFC West with a two-game cushion on the Rams and 49ers.
Warner’s performance so far this year is reminiscent of his MVP days in St. Louis. He has completed 70 percent of his passes and is third in the NFL with 1,708 passing yards. He has 12 touchdowns and five interceptions to hold a 102.8 quarterback rating.
His job has been made easier by Boldin and Fitzgerald, who have combined for nearly 1,000 yards and 10 touchdowns. Those 10 touchdown receptions are split between the two, with each having five to their name—tying both of them for the NFL lead with the Cowboys’ Terrell Owens.
Boldin has been out since he received a vicious hit from the Jets’ Eric Smith in the team’s Week Four loss. In his absence, rookie receiver Steve Breaston has seen increased playing time and has done a nice job filling in. Breaston has 28 catches on the year for 373 yards and a touchdown. While the Cardinals expect to have Boldin back for Sunday’s game, Breaston should still see considerable playing time as Boldin continues to recover from his fractured sinus.
The Cardinals have also seen a nice contribution from their running game, with veteran Edgerrin James rushing 101 times for 363 yards and three touchdowns while rookie Tim Hightower continues to impress, rushing 43 times for 130 yards and five touchdowns. Hightower has emerged as a solid red-zone threat for the Cardinals.
For the Panthers, the team is enjoying its return to the upper echelon of the NFL. The return of Delhomme continues to spell good things for Carolina, as the offense is clicking on all cylinders, albeit quietly. Delhomme has completed 120-of-203 passes for 1,533 yards and seven touchdowns to go along with five interceptions for an 84.0 quarterback rating.
Smith and fellow wide-out Muhsin Muhammad have combined to cause a viable receiving threat for the first time since Muhammad left the team to play in Chicago. Smith and Muhammad have 498 and 469 yards receiving, respectively—the only teammates in the NFC to be in the top 10 in that category.
DeAngelo Williams is responding well in his first year as the starter at running back, while rookie Jonathan Stewart has provided the power running spark that Carolina has been missing since Stephen Davis left. The two have combined for 766 yards and seven touchdowns—five of them belonging to Stewart. This balanced offensive attack has set the stage for a great start to the Panthers’ season.
The biggest key to the game this week will be the same as last week for the Panthers—defense. The Cardinals come to Charlotte with the league’s highest-scoring offense, averaging 29.5 points per game. The Panthers, however, come into Sunday's matchup with the league’s third-best scoring defense, allowing just 14.9 points per game.
Peppers comes into the game with a team-high four sacks and will look to expand upon his recent success against Arizona. His agility and finesse in the pass rush should cause problems for Warner and the Cardinals' offensive line. Peppers recorded a forced fumble last week against Brees, and Warner’s biggest question mark under center may be his ability to hold onto the ball when hit.
Warner has lost four fumbles this year—three of them coming in their Week Four loss to the Jets. If the Panthers can force turnovers on the Cardinals offense, they will be in the driver’s seat Sunday. In Arizona’s two losses this season, they have combined for nine turnovers. In that 21-point loss to the Jets, Warner was responsible for six turnovers—combining three interceptions with those three fumbles.
The Cardinals' defense has been nothing to look past this year, either. Both Bertrand Berry and Travis LaBoy have four sacks, and the unit has racked up a league-high nine forced fumbles. Their team total of 18 sacks is good for fourth-best in the league and they have three interceptions to go along with them.
Their defense has been a question mark at times, however, as they allowed 80 total points in their two losses—56 of those were scored by the Jets.
Another part of the game that will be interesting to watch is the special teams component. The Panthers have had some trouble this year in their punt formation, having had three punts blocked. In their last game, the Cardinals’ Sean Morey blocked the Cowboys’ punt in overtime and Monty Beisel picked up the ball in the end zone for the win.
As in any game, a blocked punt could be the deciding factor if the Panthers cannot shore up their protection. Cardinals return man J.J. Arrington also returned the game’s opening kickoff for a touchdown against Dallas, something Carolina has not allowed this year.
This game is huge for the Panthers; and while it is big for the Cardinals, they have a much bigger cushion in their division than the one the Panthers currently rest on. The Panthers will head into their bye week following Sunday’s game, and they could sit at 6-2 at the midway point when they do so.
The Panthers need to pick up as many wins as possible before they go on a daunting five game stretch at the end of the season against tough opponents. The Cardinals will have fresh legs coming off of their bye week, and look to avoid the sluggish start that occasionally comes from teams fresh off of vacation. This matchup between division leaders will certainly be the game of the week in the NFC.