Clash in Carolina is ultimate game of run vs. pass

The Arizona Cardinals travel to Carolina on Saturday in a rematch from Week 8, in which the Panthers won at at home, 27-23.

This time, however, there's a lot more at stake as the winner will advance to the NFC Championship Game.

The Cardinals fizzled down the stretch of the regular season and looked like a team that could beat its NFC West rivals but couldn't travel east or run the ball.

The ground game showed up in last week's win over the Falcons. Arizona, however, hasn't looked good when they've had to travel east this year; the Cardinals went 0-5 on such trips and allowed 100 points more than they scored in those games. No team is going to win when it allows 40.4 points per game, which is the case in those five games for Arizona. The good news for the Cardinals is that the only close game among those five was the loss at Carolina.

The Panthers were 8-0 at home this season, winning by an average score of 29-14. No team scored more points against the Panthers in Bank of America Stadium than the Cardinals, and this should prove to be a much closer game than people think, especially if the weather cooperates for the Cardinals. Right now, it is expected to be in the 50s but showers are likely.

Carolina's running game has been on fire of late and has produced 21 rushing touchdowns in the last seven games. Weather will not interrupt what they do best, which is grinding out more than 150 yards on the ground and feeding Steve Smith through the air. There will be some points scored in this game, as both teams should get into the high 20s.

The last time they played

These teams met on Oct. 26 and it was a sunny, 70-degree day with no wind. The Cardinals were missing tight end Leonard Pope but the Panthers were missing two key offensive linemen, center Ryan Kalil and right tackle Jeff Otah. Kalil makes the line calls and Otah is critical to the Panthers' power run game. Both players are back for this game. The Cardinals got nine receptions and two touchdowns from Anquan Boldin in that game; Boldin is questionable for this game with a hamstring injury he suffered last week.

The Cardinals had a 17-3 lead in the third quarter before the running of DeAngelo Williams and two touchdown receptions by Smith gave Carolina the lead for good. Kurt Warner dropped back to pass 51 times, completing 35, but a fourth-quarter interception ended any hopes of winning the game as the Panthers converted the pick into a field goal.

Below is a breakdown of the down-and-distance situations in that game. The Panthers were balanced on first downs with an equal number of runs and passes, while the Cardinals passed 71 percent of the time on first down, as expected. When you look at second down, the Cardinals only ran it three times for minus-1 yard, but they threw it 87.5 percent of the time. Carolina ran on 71 percent of its second downs. This game could be categorized as the air vs. ground attack.

When the Cardinals have the ball

Both Ken Whisenhunt and offensive coordinator Todd Haley have told me they need to run the ball better and stick with it even if it gets off to a slow start. Last week against Atlanta, the 28 run plays -- especially the 16 to Edgerrin James -- made a statement: The coaches recognize that being one-dimensional isn't a winning formula. I expect more running this week against Carolina's 20th-ranked run defense.

James is also an excellent pass blocker. He sees the pressure schemes and picks up the right defender. Warner was not sacked in his 32 pass attempts last week and James was a critical factor. If nothing else, he can recognize where the Panthers put Julius Peppers and get a chip block on him, because the Cardinals tackles will struggle to prevent him from hitting Warner. Last week, the Falcons were not afraid to pressure Warner -- especially on first and second downs -- and I expect more of the same from John Fox's defense.

The Cardinals love to use their three- and four-receiver packages and help the pass protection with a quick passing game. Arizona has 54 completions of more than 20 yards this season and some of those are short passes that guys like Boldin and Steve Breaston turn into long gains. Warner says he loves to see the blitz and his receivers love to use the "rub" routes (a version of a pick). Time will tell if Carolina can handle both issues. The Carolina secondary has size on the corners with Chris Gamble and Ken Lucas and they can play Larry Fitzgerald as well as any tandem in the league, yet they still let him average more than 16 yards per catch in Week 8. Look for more rolled coverage to Fitzgerald, especially when Boldin is not on the field or if it's determined he's not 100 percent.

I looked at the Panthers' regular-season finale against the Saints, a team that presents similar problems to Arizona. Drew Brees dropped back to pass 51 times, just like Warner did the first time, and Marques Colston averaged more than 16 yards per catch, just like Fitzgerald, but Carolina won the time of possession with their run game and got one critical turnover, which was parlayed into a touchdown in a two-point win. That's exactly what the Panthers have to do again this week.

When the Panthers have the ball

Carolina has the hottest running back in the NFL in DeAngelo Williams. While he didn't make the Pro Bowl, Williams will prove that the voters once again made a big mistake. Williams had 178 yards in the regular-season finale and he had 108 yards on 17 carries in the Week 8 win over Arizona. Look for him to get 20 carries for more than 120 yards and at least one touchdown this week. As Fox said to me this week, "We sold out the remaining tickets for this night playoff game in seven minutes." People are coming to see the powerful No. 3-ranked running game chew up the clock.

Panthers quarterback Jake Delhomme was my pick for Comeback Player of the Year and, even though the Panthers are known as a running offense, Delhomme was fifth in the NFL in fourth-quarter passing with a rating of 97.8. He has Smith, who commands double coverage on almost every play, and Muhsin Muhammad, who is a big, reliable possession target and maybe the best blocking wide receiver in the NFL next to Hines Ward.

Warner threw twice as many touchdowns as Delhomme (30 to 15), but in a one-game tournament, I'm not so sure it matters. If the Panthers play the field-position game, have long drives and score like they have over the last eight weeks (30 points per game), they will win. When it comes to winning close games, the Panthers are experts. They are 8-1 in games decided by one score. Arizona is 3-3.

The bottom line

The Cardinals will make this a very exciting game, but a second playoff win -- on the road, on a Saturday night, with the Panthers getting injured players healthy thanks to the bye -- is too much to ask. Carolina got nine hits on Warner the last time, producing two sacks, two forced fumbles, an interception and three tackles for a loss, and it looks like more of the same will happen this time around.

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