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Cardinals vs. Panthers Preview: What a difference a year makes

Last January the two best teams in the NFC met to decide who would be headed to the Super Bowl, the rematch come with a slightly different situation

NFC Championship - Arizona Cardinals v Carolina Panthers Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Not So NFC Championship Rematch

The Cardinals and Panthers will hardly resemble the two teams who met in last season’s NFC Championship Game when they face off this Sunday in Charlotte. Yes, the majority of the players are the same, but neither team is enjoying the success they had last season. The Cardinals, instead of being 13-3, are 3-3-1 after a brutal 6-6 tie against the Seahawks. The Panthers, who were 15-1 the last time these two teams met, are 1-5 and hoping to jump start their season coming off their bye week.

While this may be a surprising thing to say when you look at each team’s record, but it appears that the Panthers are more likely to begin turning things around. Cam Newton’s statistics are similar to what he posted last year, so there are those who think he could go on a similar tear and get back into the MVP race. If that happens, the Panthers record should be impacted positively. Newton, however, can’t do it alone and he may not have to going forward.

Carolina’s defense has been less than stellar so far this year, giving up 50 more yards and ten more points per game than they did a year ago. Injuries, and the decision to let Josh Norman leave via free agency, have played a part, but the Panthers are set to get healthy in the secondary with James Bradberry, Robert McClain and Leonard Johnson scheduled to return from injury. While this is certainly good news with a solid Cardinals passing attack coming to town, the key to shutting down Arizona’s offense is stopping David Johnson and a big key to doing that will be the play of Kawaan Short. Despite his sack numbers being down from a year ago, Short is still playing at a high level according to Ron Rivera and both expect that the stats and wins will soon come.

While the Panthers are rested and getting healthy, the Cardinals are coming across the country after a grueling, five quarter overtime tie against the Seahawks. The game was so physical that Bruce Arians didn’t allow his team to hit each other in practice on Wednesday. It remains to be seen if that will help improve their chances of winning, but one thing is certain, the Cardinals must play better on special teams. Chandler Catanzaro has already missed three kicks this year after missing just three all of last year. Two of those were potential game winners, including a 24-yarder he bounced of the uprights in the tie against Seattle.

Arians has expressed full support for his kicker, but the bottom line is that he can’t keep missing kicks and the Cardinals can’t allow field goal attempts to be blocked like they did against the Seahawks. Their special teams certainly suffered a major blow when Jaron Brown went down against the Seahawks and he is now out for the season with a torn ACL, so other players need to step up.

The Cardinals did get some good news on the other Brown, John, as the team feels it will have his effects from being a carrier of the sickle cell trait under control in time for him to return this weekend. If he is still out, however, the Cardinals will look to J.J. Nelson to help fill the void. Nelson has 4.2 speed and almost scored the game-winning touchdown against Seattle before being caught from behind.

With the Panthers coming in fresh and the Cardinals still reeling from the effects of last week’s game, this matchup could very well be the turning point in Carolina’s season.