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Big Game from Patrick Peterson Crucial for Cardinals Victory in NFC Championship

Gary Davenport@@IDPSharksNFL AnalystJanuary 20, 2016

Arizona Cardinals cornerback Patrick Peterson (21) runs onto the field prior to an NFL divisional playoff football game against the Green Bay Packers, Saturday, Jan. 16, 2016, in Glendale, Ariz. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)
Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

In the lead-up to Sunday's NFC Championship Game, there will be no shortage of discussion regarding quarterbacks Cam Newton of the Carolina Panthers and Carson Palmer of the Arizona Cardinals. The two are likely to finish as the top two vote-getters in the race to be named the 2015 NFL MVP.

Those signal-callers will no doubt have a huge impact on the game, and both are feeling more than a little pressure to lead their squads to a berth in Super Bowl 50.

However, Newton and Palmer are hardly the only players feeling the squeeze this week. If the Cardinals are going to emerge victorious and make it to the second Super Bowl in franchise history, the defense has to step up big as well.

And to do that, the Redbirds need a big game from cornerback Patrick Peterson.

Peterson is coming off a strong showing against the Green Bay Packers in the divisional round, even if his best play of the day (and quite possibly the season) didn't count. Here's the play, shared by the NFL's official Twitter account:

NFL @NFL

This Patrick Peterson 100-yard pick-six off Aaron Rodgers was wiped away due to penalty. #GBvsAZ https://t.co/bG4zRPHQDv

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In the second quarter of last Saturday's win, Peterson intercepted an Aaron Rodgers pass and returned it 100 yards for a score. At least he appeared to. The play was wiped out by an illegal hands to the face call on defensive lineman Frostee Rucker.

Peterson admitted to Kyle Odegard of the team's website that he was disappointed his postseason dream didn't come true:

I told the defensive back guys, I had a dream that I was scoring against someone with yellow pants on. It was a possibility that it was either going to be Washington or Green Bay. I told them before this game even happened. ...

I just wanted to get in the end zone. I told Frostee, "You owe me one."

At first glance, the play that wasn't might look like a microcosm for a second straight disappointing season for the fifth-year veteran. Peterson's 35 tackles were a career low. His two interceptions tied for the fewest of his career. Peterson's eight passes defensed were the second-lowest of his five seasons in the NFL.

The thing is, basic statistics rarely tell the whole story with cornerbacks. And a deeper look shows that Peterson's 2015 was anything but disappointing.

Patrick Peterson Career Stats
YearPFF Rank*Thrown AtComp % vs.Rating vs.
201566547.761.8
2014679556.897.0
2013149054.491.3
2012159551.664.8
201110111359.385.0
* Among CB at Pro Football Focus

Per the metrics at Pro Football Focus, Peterson was the sixth-ranked cornerback in the National Football League in 2015. That's light-years better than the year before, when he finished well outside the top 50.

In fact, in many respects Peterson had a career year in 2015. His rank at PFF, times targeted, completion percentage against and passer rating against were all career bests. For the first time since he entered the NFL, fewer than half the passes thrown in Peterson's direction were completed.

It's simple, really: Peterson's tackles were down because he was targeted fewer than 90 times for the first time ever. Peterson has long been thought of as an elite option at his position because of his game-breaking ability with the ball in his hands. He's certainly paid like one.

In 2015, his coverage metrics bear that out as well. It's hardly a surprise Peterson was named an All-Pro this season. Or that opposing quarterbacks began avoiding him.

As Darren Urban of the team's website reported, Peterson's excellent play in 2015 didn't go unnoticed by defensive coordinator James Bettcher.

"I'm telling you what I believe and what I feel: He's doing special things," Bettcher said. "Watch the tape. People aren't catching the ball on him. Put him on the best receiver every week, or the guy they target the most, whether it is in the slot or outside, whatever it is, he's special."

On Sunday, the Cardinals badly need Peterson to have one of those special days, both outside and in the slot.

Panthers tight end Greg Olsen, who topped 1,000 receiving yards for the second straight season in 2015, is hands down Cam Newton's favorite target. As Olsen goes, so does the Carolina passing attack.

Against smaller cornerbacks, Olsen can use his superior size and strength to outmuscle defenders. At 6'1" and 215 pounds, Peterson is anything but a smaller cornerback. In fact, Peterson is two inches taller and about 10 pounds heavier than Arizona free safety Rashad Johnson.

Olsen may be Newton's preferred target, but he's far from the only concern facing Peterson and the Cardinals.

Wide receiver Ted Ginn has enjoyed easily the best season of his nine-year career functioning as Newton's deep threat. Ginn has found the end zone 10 times this seasonnearly as many as every other year in his career combined. Three times since the beginning of December, Ginn has scored from at least 45 yards out.

If there's one thing that could hurt the Cardinals on Sunday more than Olsen's racking up double-digit catches, it's Ginn's getting behind the defense for a cheap score.

In an NFC title game featuring a pair of top-seven scoring defenses, points will be at a premium, and then some. A long touchdown pass to Ginn could well be the difference in the game. So could a turnover or return touchdown by Peterson.

And so while Patrick Peterson has had a phenomenal season and earned his lofty salary this year, there's still work to be done.

Because for all the good Peterson has done his team this year, it could all be unraveled by one poor outing in the NFC Championship Game.

No pressure though.

Gary Davenport is an NFL analyst at Bleacher Report and a member of the Fantasy Sports Writers Association and the Pro Football Writers of America. You can follow Gary on Twitter @IDPSharks.

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