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NFC Championship Game Preview: Palmer vs. Newton

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The backstory


The shame is that this matchup isn't taking place under the bright lights of the Super Bowl. The combined 28 regular-season wins of the Cardinals (13) and Panthers (15) are the most by opposing playoff teams since 2004. This will also be the first postseason game of the Super Bowl era featuring two teams that average at least 30 points per game.

These teams have been on a collision course for the NFC Championship Game all season. They rank first and second in total points, point differential, takeaways and points off of takeaways. Carolina boasts the NFL's best home record (8-0) while tying Arizona for the best road record (7-1).

Beyond the impressive statistics, the conference title showdown also showcases two of the league's most aggressive coaches, collectively nabbing the last three NFL Coach of the Year awards. Living and dying by the "No risk it, no biscuit" mantra, Bruce Arians is a fearless play-caller with little regard for coaching by the book.

"I play to win," Arians explained after taking criticism for throwing on second down ahead of the two-minute warning and sending an all-out blitz on Aaron Rodgers' Hail Mary in last week's overtime victory.

Ron Rivera now embraces his own "Riverboat Ron" moniker after experiencing a mid-career epiphany that enabled an expanded understanding of probability in determining the outcome of football games. Armed with the understanding that field goals don't win games in a touchdown league, Rivera takes a backseat to no one in key fourth-down decisions.

Arians' squad is coming off its two most sluggish performances of the season. Rivera is still learning "how to kill a gnat with a sledgehammer," as NFL Media's Deion Sanders put it after the Panthers nearly blew a 31-0 halftime lead last week.

Under pressure


A legitimate MVP candidate and the NFL's best passer in 2015, Carson Palmer paced the league in points per game (32.8), yards per game (426.3) and passing yards per game (292.8) on the road this season.

That doesn't tell the full story, however.

Although Palmer generated the NFL's highest passer rating (121.2) in the second half of games this year, he has struggled mightily in the first half of the last two games.

Arians chided Palmer for being too conservative early in last week's game, electing for shorter throws rather than challenging Green Bay's defense downfield.

All parties now insist Palmer has nerves and emotion out of his system and is operating under more aggressive mindset this week.

Palmer isn't the only member of the offense in the spotlight. Arians called out the offensive line for "getting their ass kicked up front" over the past two games.

After watching defensive tackles Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short dominate Seattle's blockers last week, it's no surprise that Arizona's coaching staff is trying light a fire under their own offensive linemen.

Matchup to watch


Cardinals wideouts versus Panthers secondary:

The most useless storyline of the week is the hype over a potential Larry Fitzgerald vs. Josh Norman matchup. Fitzgerald plays primarily in the slot, which Norman covers on just 1.4 percent of his snaps.

The real matchup is Palmer's embarrassment of riches aiming to exploit Carolina's soft zone coverage missing second and third cornerbacks Charles Tillman and Bene' Benwikere.

Fitzgerald has already built a strong case as the preeminent wide receiver in postseason history. He's the only player ever to average at least 100 yards and one touchdown per game in the playoffs.

"Any time we need a lift," Arians said this week, "I'm going to find some play on that sheet and get the ball to Larry."

While that's a testament to Fitzgerald's leadership and dependability in key situations, it should not overshadow the threat provided by Michael Floyd and John Brown.

Outplaying Fitzgerald since midseason, Floyd has generated at least 100 yards in five of his last nine games after managing the feat just six times in his previous 55 games. One of the most dangerous deep threats in the league, Brown went over 1,000 yards and drew another 136 yards in pass interference penalties -- second only to Antonio Brown.

"The ball can be distributed any way. You never know who's going to have a breakout game," Floyd explained. "It could be Fitz one day. It could be John in the back field, making plays. It could be anyone."

Over the past six weeks, the Panthers defense has surrendered 22 (Saints), 28 (Giants) and 24 (Seahawks) points in the second half, as issues in the secondary surfaced. Cortland Finnegan has been a liability in the slot. Fourth cornerback Robert McClain is playing every snap. Playing through injury, safety Kurt Coleman is coming off his worst two-game stretch of the season.

While this matchup swings heavily in Arizona's favor, Carolina has a monumental advantage of their own ...

Panthers ground attack vs. Cardinals front seven:

The Panthers' streak of 30 consecutive games with at least 100 rushing yards is the longest since the mid-1970s Steelers dynasty. It begins with Cam Newton, the most unstoppable dual-threat quarterback in history.

"I don't think any coach has crafted an offense around one player as well as Mike Shula has crafted his around Cam Newton," NFL Media analyst Brian Baldinger exclaimed this week.

Newton's unique ground attack is the most difficult in the league to defend because of his deceptiveness. He's a magician at the mesh point, freezing defenders who remain unsure for a split second whether it's a quarterback keeper, a power run to Jonathan Stewart or gadget play. That run game feeds into Newton's burgeoning aerial attack, which capitalizes on misdirection and play action.

If the Cardinals defense is going to keep Newton under 30 points, they must set a hard edge, keep him inside and stay disciplined in short-yardage situations.

Mind-blowing stats


Cam Newton has 27 combined touchdowns versus one interception in his last nine games. ... The Cardinals defensed has blitzed more frequently than any this season (44.5 percent). Newton has thrown more touchdown passes (18) versus the blitz than any quarterback this season. ... Jonathan Stewart has rushed for at least 50 yards in 16 consecutive games, the NFL's longest active streak. ... In linebackers Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis, the Panthers defense boasts two of only three NFL players with at least 100 tackles and four interceptions this season. ... None of the last eight teams to finish with the league's best record outright has gone on to win the Super Bowl. The last team to do so was the 2003 Patriots.

This is the first postseason meeting in NFL history between starting quarterbacks who both won the Heisman trophy. ... Carson Palmer owns the NFL's best winning percentage (.870) since the start of the 2014 season. ... David Johnson leads the NFL with nine touchdowns on the road this season. ... Larry Fitzgerald is the only receiver in the Super Bowl era with at least 150 receiving yards in three different postseason games. ... Patrick Peterson allowed the lowest passer rating (45.6) in coverage this season. In two career playoff games, he has surrendered just three receptions for 27 yards. ... Arizona's defense has held opponents to 20 points or less in six of the last seven games.

Prediction


It's hard to imagine a more even matchup between a pair of loaded, well-coached teams led by MVP candidates at quarterback. The Panthers haven't lost at home in over 400 days. The Cardinals have the firepower to end that streak in a riveting back-and-forth contest.

Arizona Cardinals 31, Carolina Panthers 30

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