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NFC championship primer: Panthers, Cardinals share many qualities

Doug Farrar previews the NFC championship featuring two of the NFL's best quarterbacks and multi-dimensional playcalling on both sides of the ball. 

No. 2 Arizona at No. 1 Carolina (Sunday, Jan. 24, 6:40 E.T., FOX)

How they match up

On the surface and in the narrative, these two teams are very different—the Cardinals with their high-volume passing attack, and the Panthers with their tough defense and multi-dimensional rushing attack. But in truth, there hasn’t been a better quarterback from Week 9 until now than Cam Newton—though the Panthers are still stymieing opposing defenses with their run game, Newton has thrown 27 touchdown passes and three interceptions in that time period, and he’s the first player in NFL history to throw for 35 touchdown passes and run for 10 touchdowns in the same season. So, the Cardinals had better watch out for the passing game, as well.

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The Panthers have the league’s top scoring offense, and Arizona ranks second, and while that’s led by Carson Palmer and Bruce Arians’s amazing aerial attack, the addition of rookie running back David Johnson has given this team a depth in execution and playcalling not seen before. Palmer is still the main man, though—the most important player on this team, and he'll have to play better than he did in the insane wild-card win against the Packers. In that game, Palmer was dealing with a finger injury, and was frequently off on his timing with receivers. He completed 25 of 41 passes for 349 yards, three touchdowns and two picks against the Packers, but Green Bay’s secondary dropped multiple interceptions, and two of those touchdowns were unusual—a tip from Packers cornerback Damarious Randall into the hands of Michael Floyd, and the shovel pass to Larry Fitzgerald that decided things in Arizona’s favor. Against the Panthers, Palmer will have to be far more on target, or the game could get away from him.

Why is Carolina’s rushing attack so special? Start with Newton himself—it’s not often you have a quarterback running iso lead draws, but the 6'5", 245-pound Newton is eager for such contact, and he’s aggressive to a fault when on the run. He’s had double-digit rushing touchdown totals in two of his five seasons, and he’s always a threat to take off. Then, factor in halfback Jonathan Stewart and his estimable combination of speed and power, and add in fullback Mike Tolbert, whose rushing style could be likened to a dump truck moving down a steep hill with no brakes. Add in offensive coordinator Mike Shula’s feel for the option game, and the different types of run concepts, and you have something we really haven’t seen in the NFL since the heyday of Jim Harbaugh’s 49ers. The Panthers will throw traditional counter/power/trap stuff at the Cardinals but in the guise of dual- and triple-option ideas. 

Arizona’s offense as a whole is designed by Arians, and it’s equally as diverse. Arians is famous for scrapping parts of his playbook depending on his upcoming opponent—he’s far more open to new ideas and less dependent on the vertical passing game than people may think. This season alone, we’ve seen everything from inside runs with wham blocks to three-tight end looks on third down to all-go vertical routes. But the fulcrum of Arizona’s offense is the league’s most effective intermediate to deep passing game, and that’s all about Arians’s ability to combine deep stuff with easy underneath routes for Palmer.

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Carolina’s defense is more about execution than schematic trickeration, though coordinator Sean McDermott is ready and willing to blitz at any time. Lead cornerback Josh Norman has been the NFL’s best cover man through stretches of this season, Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis can do anything and everything you’d want linebackers to do, and in defensive tackle Kawann Short, Carolina has a truly special interior disruptor. Where the Panthers may struggle is with their second and third cornerbacks—right now, that’s Robert McClain and Cortland Finnegan, due to injuries to Bene Benwikere and Charles Tillman. Carolina could be especially vulnerable in the slot, and Arians runs a ton of slot stuff in different iterations.

Arizona’s defense is not what it was without the injured Tyrann Mathieu, but it’s still pretty special, and coordinator James Bettcher has taken ideas from predecessor Todd Bowles and expanded upon them. The Cardinals will blitz as much as any team, and they believe they have the horses in the secondary to handle the extra burden that puts on pass defenders. Newton has become much better at reading and reacting to blitzes, but he’ll have his hands full here. The Cardinals love to run double-gap blitzes right up the middle, and they’ll do it with all kinds of pressure and coverage looks.

The last meeting

These two teams last faced off in the wild-card round of the postseason, with the Panthers winning, 27–16 at home. However, there’s not much to take from that game. With Palmer out, backup Ryan Lindley was completely overwhelmed and Newton was not the quarterback he is now. Arizona was held to 78 total yards, and Palmer can manufacture that in a matter of seconds. Newton completed 18 of 32 passes for 198 yards, two touchdowns and a pick, and there have been games this season in which those yardage and touchdown totals would barely match what he's now able to do in one half of football.

It’s a whole new ballgame—literally and figuratively—for the NFC’s top two seeds this time around.