Wild Card Weekend preview: Cardinals-Panthers

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The backstory

The early-December hand-wringing over the NFC South's ineptitude crashing the NFL's postseason party has given way to a suddenly intriguing matchup featuring two teams trending in opposite directions.

Minus Carson Palmer and Drew Stanton, the Cardinals have cratered, losing four of their final six games after starting the season with the NFL's best record through mid-November. They haven't scored 20 points in a game since Week 10. Overburdened with the task of carrying an inept offense, the defense finally collapsed with an average of 496 yards allowed in the final two weeks.

The Panthers, on the other hand, have reeled off four consecutive wins, holding those opponents to just 10.8 points per game behind a swarming defense reminiscent of last season's dominant unit led by Defensive Player of the Year Luke Kuechly and three new, more athletic starters in the secondary. The offense has found its identity behind a healthy offensive line and a zone-read rushing attack that suddenly looks as strong as any outside of Seattle.

Throw the records out the window. These are two materially different teams than they were prior to Thanksgiving.

Under pressure

Ryan Lindley, QB, Cardinals: Last week, it took a perfectly scripted opening drive capped off by a flea flicker for Lindley to produce his first NFL touchdown in 229 pass attempts -- the most to start a career in NFL history without a score. In his best game as a pro, he tossed three interceptions, with 49ers cornerback Chris Culliver dropping a fourth. Lindley's .167 (1-5) record as a starter will be the worst career winning percentage to start a playoff game since at least 1950. His 50.3 career passer rating is the lowest by any postseason quarterback in the last 30 years. In short, the quarterback has been holding the team hostage throughout December.

For the Cardinals to remain competitive, Coach of the Year favorite Bruce Arians must mitigate Lindley's impact by keeping the game close. In that scenario, Arians can mix the run and the pass, supporting his overwhelmed quarterback with easily defined reads, play action, a couple of trick plays and a half-dozen shots down the field. Lindley has enough arm to burn a gambling defense, but he has to stay calm in the pocket and avoid staring down his primary read.

Matchup to watch:

Cardinals front seven versus Panthers' revived ground attack:

Over the past five weeks, Cam Newton and Jonathan Stewart have rushed for more yards than any quarterback-running back tandem in the league -- including Russell Wilson and Marshawn Lynch. They have cleared 100 rushing in 11 consecutive games after failing to reach the century mark in four of the first five. The ground attack is clicking behind an overhauled offensive line with three new starters since a gimpy Newton absorbed nine sacks in a Monday Night Football shellacking at the hands of the Eagles in Week 10.

Todd Bowles' once stout run defense has struggled to contain scrambling quarterbacks of late, allowing 11.6 yards per carry to Russell Wilson and Colin Kaepernick the past two weeks. More worrisome, the Seahawks and 49ers averaged 237 yards on the ground against a defense that has been forced to gamble late in games to make up for a feckless offense. If a foot injury sidelines nose tackle Dan Williams, Bowles loses his best run-stuffer.

Mind-blowing stats:

Arizona's 73 points in the final six weeks of the season are the least by any playoff team since 1936. ... They have managed just four offensive touchdowns in the last 27 quarters (75 drives) combined. ... They are 8-1 when gaining at least 330 yards and 3-4 when gaining fewer. ... Their rushing average of 3.29 yards per carry is the lowest in the league and tied for the sixth-lowest by a postseason team since 1980. ... The Cardinals were 4-4 on the road this season, allowing more points (19.9) than they scored (18.4). ... Larry Fitzgerald's 117.5 receiving yards per game is the highest total in history. ... Arizona's defense has held 13 of 16 opponents to 20 points or fewer. They are also the only team in the NFL to surrender at least 500 yards in four different games. ... A testament to Arians and Bowles, no team lost more 10-game starters from 2013 to 2014 than Arizona.

Carolina's defense ranked 19th in Football Outsiders' metrics in Weeks 1-9. Since Week 10, they are fifth. ... Among defensive ends, Charles Johnson's 52 quarterback hurries are second only to J.J. Watt's 54, per Pro Football Focus. ... Rookie pass rusher Kony Ealy has registered a sack in each of the past three games. ... Newton has been sacked fewer times since Week 11 (8.0) than in Week 10 alone (9.0). Three of his four highest rushing totals of the season have come in his last three starts. He also has a rushing score in each of the past three games after managing just two in the previous 15. Since 2011, only Tom Brady and Russell Wilson have more wins in December and January. ... The Panthers could have as many as eight different starters this week than in Week 10. ... They are the fourth playoff team in NFL history with a losing record.

Prediction:

This sets up as the lowest-scoring game of the entire postseason. Over the last month, the Cardinals are scoring just 13.0 points per game while the Panthers are allowing 10.8. As two of the NFL's premier coaches this season, Arians and Bowles are sure to bring creative and aggressive game plans. As confident as they may claim to be in Lindley, the nosedive from Stanton to the fourth stringer has been more severe than the dropoff from Carson Palmer to his primary backup. The quarterback differential is simply too much to overcome.

Carolina Panthers 16, Arizona Cardinals 10

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