Two teams with vastly differing records that are heading in equally opposite directions meet in the first game of this season’s NFL playoffs. The Arizona Cardinals have won four more games than the Carolina Panthers did this year, yet find themselves listed as high as 6½-point underdogs in this wild card game.

Carolina becomes the second team in five years to win a division and make the playoffs despite having a losing record. The 7-8-1 Panthers went two full months without a victory, winless in seven games between October 5 and December 7. A week 14 41-10 thumping of the Saints kicked off a four-game winning streak while at the same time New Orleans spiraled out of control, opening the door for an improbable division run. With all those victories coming against teams that finished with losing records, questions still remain regarding the Panthers. Carolina defeated only one team with a winning record this season, and that was back in week two against Detroit. The Panthers barely beat Tampa Bay (19-17) and Cleveland (17-13), but on the other hand looked very impressive at New Orleans and Atlanta (34-3) in that four-game winning streak.

 

Arizona Offense vs Carolina Defense

The Panthers’ defense was among the NFL’s worst for most of the season, with the year-long loss of DE Greg Hardy causing a more than anticipated void. Carolina’s run defense has looked respectable over the last few games, and should have no problem containing Arizona running backs Stepfan Taylor and Kerwynn Williams. While the Cardinals have very capable receivers (Larry Fitzgerald, Michael Floyd, John Brown), they are nowhere near as effective as when Palmer is under center. The Cardinals’ offensive line can be pushed around, and Carolina’s defense has rediscovered their pass rush. DE Charles Johnson (8.5 sacks) has been playing very well of late, and Carolina has chalked up 14 sacks and nine takeaways over the last four games.

The 11-5 Cardinals lost four of their last six games, were only 5-5 in games without Carson Palmer, and now his backup, Drew Stanton is out as well. Third-stringer David Lindley struggled in two losses as the starting quarterback, completing less than 50% of his passes while throwing twice as many interceptions as touchdowns. Arizona scored an average of 11.5 points in those two games, and with RB Andre Ellington also on injured reserve an average offense has now become anemic.

 

Carolina Offense vs Arizona Defense

To make matters worse the injury bug has also hit the defense this year, with DT Darnell Dockett, DE Ed Stinson and LB John Abraham among eight players on IR; in addition ILB Daryl Washington was suspended for the full season for violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy. Somehow the Arizona D persevered with the next man up mantra, led by LB Alex Okafor (8 sacks), DE Calais Campbell (7 sacks), and clutch plays from DL Frostee Rucker (5 sacks, 2 forced fumbles). The pressure they and NT Dan Williams generate make things easier for corners Patrick Peterson and Antonio Cromartie, and together they are capable of stifling any NFL offense. Carolina’s offensive line was a mess early in the year, but have improved since LG Andrew Norwell and RT Mike Remmers were inserted into the starting lineup. The Panthers like to run the ball (an average of 30 attempts per game) and Jonathan Stewart (4.6 yards per carry) has been quietly effective, with 486 yards rushing in the last five games. If – and it is a big if – Carolina can get the running game open, that could open things up for TE Greg Olsen and rookie WR Kelvin Benjamin; those two had 1,008 yard receiving each, and combined for 15 touchdowns. Cam Newton has started to look like his old self since his car crash, rushing for a touchdown in three straight games. During that time Newton has accounted for eight scores and one just turnover; he has run for 246 yards in Carolina’s four-game streak.

Early in the season Arizona was winning games by forcing turnovers on defense while protecting the ball on offense, and that will be key for them Saturday to have any chance of winning. The Cardinals finished the season with a plus-eight turnover differential, which was fifth best in the NFL. That helped mask some serious deficiencies with the offense. Arizona ranked 24th in scoring (19.4 points per game), 24th in yardage (320 ypg), 31st in rushing yards (82 ypg) and 32nd in yards per carry (3.3). The bend-don’t-break defense ranked fifth in scoring (18.7 ppg) despite allowing 368 yards per game (24th) thanks in large part to those turnovers, but by season’s end the team had scored just 11 more points than they had allowed. In reality the Cardinals probably should have been 8-8, and with the current lineup they’re in the running for a top ten, if not top five draft pick.

 

#5 Arizona Cardinals (11-5) at #4 Carolina Panthers ★★★
NFC Wild Card Game
Saturday January 3 at 4:30 pm ET on ESPN
Announcing crew: Mike Tirico, Jon Gruden, Lisa Salters

While Carolina’s defense has been stepping up in the last month, Arizona’s has been breaking down and falling apart at the seams. The Cardinals’ D can’t get off the field, while at the same time their offense goes three-and-out. Arizona has allowed a colossal 473 yards rushing in the last two games; if they don’t get it in gear Williams and Newton could both have huge games while keeping Larry Fitzgerald and the Arizona offense on the sidelines. However, I think the Cardinals have enough talent on defense to keep this game low scoring and relatively close – but it won’t be enough for a win. I’ll go with Carolina to win but take the Cardinals and the points, as well as the under despite the low point total being listed.
Pick • Panthers 20, Cardinals 16
Cardinals +6½
under 38½

On a side note, this game marks the first time in the history of the NFL that a playoff game will be televised by a cable company as opposed to an over-the-air broadcasting network. While it may not seem like a big deal today considering how minute the number of households is that rely on an antenna to receive local broadcasts, it wasn’t all that long ago that games being broadcast on cable was a big deal. While concerns that games on cable were the first step to the NFL becoming a pay-per-view have dissipated, it is still a noteworthy event.

 

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