Looking at their respective records, many would side with the Cardinals tomorrow. Their 11-5 record is vastly superior to the Panthers' 7-8-1, but we know all too well that maybe they aren't who we think they are just by taking a glance at the win-loss column.
Despite starting 9-1, the Cardinals have dropped four of their last six games, including three of four on the road. Ravaged by injuries, the Cardiac Cards have rallied back from losing both Carson Palmer and Drew Stanton to injury by securing their first play off berth since 2009. The Panthers on the other hand, back to back divisional champions and winners of four straight. The two teams are seemingly going in opposite directions.
This game will come down to who can win at the line of scrimmage. Both teams have defensive lines that can take over a game, along with offensive lines that it's fair to say aren't the strongest around.
The potential loss of DL Dan Williams and Frostee Rucker, who were both limited during Thursday's practice for the Cardinals, would be huge. On a defensive line already without Darnell Dockett and Ed Stinson, the loss of Williams and Rucker, both having career years, would be hard to come back from.
The Panthers during this four game win streak have gone back to their strengths - running the ball. The return to health for Jonathan Stewart, plus the absence of the declining DeAngelo Williams has made Stewart the workhorse on the team, and it's proved to be an essential part of their winning formula.
Stewart has rushed for 486 yards from 91 carries (5.34 YPC) and a touchdown over the last month of the NFL season. A major contributor to that has been the improving offensive line of the Panthers and quarterback Cam Newton. They have finally found a five-man combo that works on that OL which is giving Newton the time he needs to survey the field and make all the throws.
In the three games Newton played in during Carolina's four game win streak (missed Week 15 v Tampa Bay because of injury), he's passed for 541 yards (6.76 YPA) for 5 TD 1 INT and a completion percentage of 61.3%. He's also added 197 yards rushing (6.56 YPC) and 3 TD. Newton's hitting his stride at the right time playing error-free, efficient football.
The Cardinals have had a tough time playing against the running quarterbacks this season. During their 2-4 run to end the season, the Cardinals faced Russell Wilson twice and Colin Kaepernick. Here's how those quarterbacks faired as rushers:
|Week 12 @ SEA||Russell Wilson||10||73||0||7.3|
|Week 16 vs SEA||Russel Wilson||6||88||1||14.7|
|Week 17 @ SF||Colin Kaepernick||7||63||0||9|
In that same stretch of games, the Cardinals have allowed over 100 yards rushing in five of those six games (including allowing 200 yards rushing to both the Seahawks and 49ers in weeks 16-17). The Cards only allowed a team to rush for over 100 yards once in the previous ten games (vs Phiadelphia, Week 8). The run defense has picked a poor time to tank it seems.
Offensively for the Cardinals, it's important that they stay balanced. A mix of both the run and pass is key for Ryan Lindley if he is to succeed. He had success early against the Niners last week because they were able to work the play action. Kerwynn Williams and Stepfan Taylor must have good games.
And that goes for the interior offensive line as well for the Cardinals. Ted Larsen, Lyle Sendlein and Paul Fanaika have come under a lot of pressure this season for their poor play, and need to step up against a Carolina defensive line that's suddenly found their mojo in the final month of the season.
The Panthers have only allowed a team to rush for over 100 yards once since Week 9 (151 vs Tampa Bay, Week 15), and since their Week 12 bye, have only allowed one team to gain over 300 total yards (310 yards @ New Orleans Week 14), and have forced nine turnovers in those four games.
Charles Johnson has 3.5 sacks since that Week 12 bye, rookie Kony Ealy has a sack in each of the last three games and Star Lotulelei has 9 tackles and 2 sacks the last four games. This defensive front is finding form at just the right time for Carolina.
A win for the Cardinals on Saturday will come down to whether they can keep balanced on offense, and containing Cam Newton in the pocket and making him beat you with his arm and not his legs. Both aspects have been a problem for Arizona this season, but now with the season on the line, expect the team to continue playing up to the situation. #NextManUp