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Panthers beat Cardinals, advance to Divisional Round

Taking advantage of a fourth-string quarterback, the Carolina Panthers held the Arizona Cardinals to an NFL postseason record-low 78 total yards in a 27-16 victory to open the Wild Card Round of the playoffs. Our takeaways:

  1. The Panthers enjoyed an edge of more than 300 yards and cruised to victory despite a subpar game from Cam Newton and the special teams. As they are wont to do several times per season, Newton's throwing mechanics were a blatant mess. He failed to get his lower body involved, leading to an assortment of misfires and an interception. The special teams contributed a missed field goal and a lost fumble, keeping Arizona close through the middle of the third quarter. The game tilted heavily in Carolina's favor in a four-drive stretch that featured a missed pass interference call on Michael Floyd, a bobbled punt return by the Panthers, a 43-yard screen pass touchdown to Fozzy Whittaker and a fumbled kickoff return by Ted Ginn.
  1. The Cardinals are a well-coached, mentally tough team that never had a legitimate shot with Ryan Lindley at quarterback. Owner of the lowest career passer rating entering the playoffs in the past 30 years, Lindley was a liability from start to finish. Arizona became the first team in the Super Bowl era to be held under 100 total yards in a playoff game. Lindley went nearly two full quarters from the start of the second to the end of the third without a single pass for positive yards. The Cardinals managed an embarrassing 1.8 yards via the pass as well as the run.
  1. Don't let the opposing quarterback fool you. The Panthers' defense has been playing lights-out football for six weeks. If not for a Newton interception and a Brenton Bersin fumble, the Cardinals would have been shut out. Luke Kuechly intercepted Lindley once and tipped another pass into Tre Boston's hands for another pick. Thomas Davis was all over the field, pitching in a pair of tackles for loss. With rangy undrafted rookie Adarius Glanton picking up snaps, this is the fastest linebacker corps in the NFL, bolstered by a revamped run-and-hit secondary featuring athletic cover corner Josh Norman and rookie standoutBene' Benwikere. Throw in Charles Johnson turning opposing offensive tackles into turnstyles over the past two months, and this defense is as imposing of any outside of CenturyLink Field. As long as Newton irons out his throwing motion, this team will be far from a pushover at Seattle or Green Bay next week.
  1. Just as he did in shutting down a white-hot, record-breaking DeMarco Murray earlier this season, Cardinals defensive coordinator Todd Bowles switched from a 3-4 scheme to a 4-3 in hopes of corralling Jonathan Stewart. It didn't work. One of the NFL's best backs over the past six weeks, Stewart showed impressive burst, making defenders miss while carrying Carolina's offense. DeAngelo Williams didn't give Stewart a breather until the fourth quarter.
  1. If this is Larry Fitzgerald's final game with the Cardinals' organization, he deserved a better sendoff. Mired in quarterback hell with Kevin Kolb, Max Hall, John Skelton and Lindley since Kurt Warner's retirement, Fitzgerald's artificially deflated numbers belie his Hall of Fame-level greatness. One play after Lindley missed him wide open in the end zone, Fitzgerald nearly carried multiple defenders over the goal line for a score. He came to play Saturday.
  1. One issue that looms for the Divisional Round is the loss of playmaking No. 3 receiver Philly Brown to a shoulder injury. A gadget player and deep threat, Brown provided the only speed element in Newton's aerial attack. Credit offensive coordinator Mike Shula for compensating by featuring Whittaker's wheels on the long screen-pass touchdown.
  1. Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman is a team-building wizard. With hands tied by the salary-cap woes of the previous regime, he cobbled together a division winner in 2013 by signing after-market free agents and drafting a pair of "hog mollies" at defensive tackle. Still haunted by the cap sins of the past, he was forced to try the same tack this past offseason. The result is seven rookies playing prominent roles as the surging Panthers advance to the Divisional Round in back-to-back years for the first time in franchise history.

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