Cardinals vs. Panthers: Complete Wild Card Game Preview for Carolina
Despite the contrasting records, the Panthers will host the game by virtue of being a division champion. The Cardinals followed up last year's success under Bruce Arians by improve upon their record and advancing to the postseason, despite utilizing three different quarterbacks.
These teams are no strangers to each other in the postseason. Arizona traveled to Charlotte to play Carolina in the Divisional Round in January 2009 and blew out the Panthers to the tune of 33-13. That game still haunts those players on the current roster as well as the Carolina fanbase.
Hopefully, this matchup will not be a repeat of the past. The Cardinals have had their share of issues as of late due to the quarterback problem, but the talent in Arizona goes beyond the field general. They have some talented players on both sides of the ball and have the makings of fielding one the better defenses in the league.
The Panthers will be searching for their first playoff win since 2005. That year, they tore through the NFC only to be denied in Seattle. A win on Saturday would be a huge achievement for Cam Newton and his teammates. For veterans like Thomas Davis (the only Panther to experience a playoff win), it could be one last shot at the Lombardi Trophy.
The following game preview will break down Saturday's game as it pertains to Carolina, complete with an injury report and matchups to watch against Arizona.
Carolina Panthers Week 17 Recap
Many anxious fans on both sides felt the anticipation of this game. With all that was on the line, this game projected to be a close affair, with many choosing the Atlanta Falcons to prevail. That would not be the case. Instead, the Carolina Panthers took control of the game early by jumping out to a quick 10-0 lead before yielding a field goal to the Atlanta offense.
As it turned out, those three points would be the only ones put up by the Falcons all game long. Matt Ryan was sacked six times by the Carolina defense and threw two pick-sixes. Roman Harper and Tre Boston capitalized on his miscues. Josh Norman limited Julio Jones to 59 yards receiving on four catches, and Carolina grounded the high-powered Falcons offense in Atlanta.
Cam Newton set a career low in pass attempts with 16, but it didn't matter as the defense played lights out. His completions were efficient enough to move the chains, and despite having one touchdown pass, he generated enough offense to get the job done. He even scored on a four-yard run.
With the final score being 34-3 in Carolina's favor, the Panthers clinched their second straight division title and returned to the playoffs despite a losing record.
News and Notes
Rivera Says Team in Good Place
On Thursday, Panthers coach Ron Rivera met with the media to discuss his team's preparations for Saturday's game. He noted his guys are in a good place, and that while his team made the postseason in an unconventional fashion, the Panthers did make the playoffs. Additionally, he noted the team's demeanor has been loose this week, which was something they weren't a year ago prior to playing San Francisco.
It's good that Carolina isn't really changing anything in terms of preparation and is using the same methods to get ready for a playoff game that were used during the regular season. Records shouldn't mean anything, as everyone is 0-0, and history has taught us that anything can happen in postseason play.
Impact of a Playoff Win for Newton
It seems as though the Panthers have waited forever to sign Cam Newton to an extension. Perhaps the team was waiting for the right time to justify a lucrative deal.
Notching a playoff win would help Newton's cause tremendously. David Newton of ESPN.com noted that a playoff win would make it easier for the Carolina front office to sign the talented quarterback to a long-term deal. The Panthers need a cornerstone to build around; with a couple of key pieces in place, locking up a franchise quarterback for the foreseeable future would be the next step in Carolina becoming a perennial contender.
Eerie Parallels Between Past and Present Playoff Games
It's strange enough that the Panthers and Cardinals will be meeting each other in the postseason again at Bank of America Stadium. What are even stranger are the similarities between the two seasons.
For starters, Carolina was a favorite in the previous game and will be so again this weekend, despite its losing regular season record.
Arizona will be missing a key player as quarterback Carson Palmer is done for the year. In the last playoff meeting, the Cardinals were missing wide receiver Anquan Boldin.
Furthermore, it was strange the way Arizona closed both seasons, dropping four of its last six. Whether this is a just a huge coincidence or a bad omen is unknown, but Carolina cannot allow history to get in the way of progress. Both are different teams than 2008, and the Panthers have been playing some excellent football as of late. Carolina hasn't defeated Arizona since 2010; starting a winning streak against the Red Birds in the playoffs would be a great way to begin a new trend.
|Derek Anderson, QB||Illness|
|Thomas DeCoud, S||Hamstring|
|A.J. Klein, OLB||Ankle|
|Fernando Velasco, OG||NFI|
|DeAngelo Williams, RB||Hand|
The Carolina Panthers are perhaps the healthiest they've been all season long. All of the key players are ready to go for Saturday's game. The only person who was unable to practice as of Thursday was Derek Anderson, who was fighting the flu. Fernando Velasco didn't practice either, but he has a non-football injury.
DeAngelo Williams could get some playing time this weekend, but Jonathan Stewart should be starting based on his productivity over the past month. Additionally, Ron Rivera may feel better about Stewart blocking instead of Williams.
Bottom line: If it's not broke, don't fix it.
Injury report courtesy of Panthers.com.
X-Factor and Matchups to Watch
Josh Norman vs. Larry Fitzgerald
This matchup could see a split between Norman and Bene Benwikere if the former is tasked with covering Michael Floyd. Fitzgerald is still a receiving threat, and while he was second on the team in receiving yards, he led the Cardinals in receptions.
Since Norman has been playing well against the league's best receivers, it makes sense to have him cover a quality receiver like Fitzgerald. However, Floyd cannot be ignored, as he is a viable threat as well. The Panthers made the mistake of not covering Fitzgerald well in 2008 and paid the price. The secondary will have its plate full on Saturday, but the matchup to watch will be Norman vs. Fitzgerald.
Carolina Pass Rush vs. Ryan Lindley
The Panthers defense sacked Matt Ryan six times last week. The dominance at the line of scrimmage allowed Carolina to disrupt the veteran's rhythm.
Going against a quarterback with only six starts in three years under his belt could be a recipe for success. With the Arizona rushing attack limited with the loss of Andre Ellington, the Cardinals may have no choice but to air it out constantly. Through three games, Lindley has been sacked six times. If Carolina neutralizes him, the Cardinals will have a difficult time trying to stay in the game and will have to rely on their defense to keep things close.
Cam Newton vs. Arizona Pass Defense
Arizona is among the worst in stopping the pass, which will work to Carolina's advantage if the running game cannot get going. The Cardinals give up an average of 259.5 passing yards per game, and with the weapons at Newton's disposal, that defensive flaw could be exposed time and again.
Naturally, Carolina would like to establish the run early, but being aggressive instead could swing momentum in its favor. Newton has been playing well since his return after being in a car accident, so it wouldn't be surprising to see him continue to elevate his play on a much bigger stage.
Carolina's X-Factor of the Week: Greg Olsen
Much of the Cardinals' defensive focus will be on Kelvin Benjamin and to an extent Jerricho Cotchery and Philly Brown. Arizona doesn't need any of these receivers beating it deep. That should leave Olsen available on short and intermediate routes, where the linebackers and safeties will have to keep him in check.
Olsen has been a force this season with career highs in receptions and receiving yards. He is not the fastest tight end, but he is strong and physical, which allows him to pick up the difficult yards. He could be targeted early and often on Saturday.
Arizona went 6-0 before Carson Palmer went down with a season-ending injury. Drew Stanton guided the Cards to a 5-3 mark before he was lost. Enter Ryan Lindley and Arizona has limped to an 0-2 finish and a wild-card berth.
Meanwhile, Carolina has been staying increasingly healthy as the season progressed and is in the midst of a four-game winning streak. The strong finish allowed the Panthers to clinch the division and secure a home game in the playoffs.
It's unwise to take any team lightly regardless of its flaws or limitations.
The Panthers weren't ready the last time they met the Cardinals in the postseason and were shockingly eliminated. In order to avoid a repeat of history, Carolina needs to continue to play at the level that got the team into the postseason in the first place.
Carolina is young, healthy and hungry with a great mix of veteran leadership and talented youngsters. Those assets will work to its advantage. Arizona is banged up and may not have the tools to counter a hot Panthers team this late in the season.
If both squads were healthy, this might be a close game. However, Carolina will make the most of its good health and move onto the next round.
Prediction: Carolina 28, Arizona 10