NFC Championship Preview
By Andrew Stern
It’s Championship Weekend in the NFL, and by 9:30 EST tonight we’ll know who’s traveling to Santa Clara, and who isn’t. In my opinion, this is the best weekend of the NFL year, and usually features the best games. It’s a matchup today of two former number one picks, and arguably the two most complete teams in the NFL.
Quarterback- The key to this game might just be the play of the signal-callers. Carson Palmer might be the more talented passer, but in his career, and certainly last week, Palmer has struggled mightily in the Postseason. Coming into today, Palmer is just 1-2 in the postseason. Now to be fair, one of the losses occurred against the Pittsburgh Steelers, and Palmer left the game early (after just one pass) due to a torn ACL, MCL, a dislocated kneecap, and some other damage. On the other side, the Panthers have the undisputed MVP in the league this year, in Cam Newton. Newton this season was spectacular, throwing for nearly 4,000 yards and 35 touchdowns. Newton also contributed 635 yards and 10 touchdowns on the ground, clearly making him the most productive player in the league this season. At 6-5, 240, Newton is big enough to take some hits and bounce off smaller corners and safeties, but also has the speed to run past slower d-linemen. In the end, both QBs will need to protect the ball, because I think the team that wins the turnover battle will win the game.
In the end, I give the slight advantage to the Panthers and Cam Newton.
Running-backs- In the offseason, the Panthers let go of the team’s all-time leading rusher, DeAngelo Williams, making Jonathan Stewart the lead/feature back for the first time in his career. Though it was seen as a risk by many, the move paid off for Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman and head coach Ron Rivera, as Stewart ran for just under 1000 yards (989 to be exact). On the flip side, the Cardinals don’t really have a bonafide number one running-back, as multiple backs will see action today.
This positional battle isn’t particularly close; give me the Panthers and Stewart over Chris Johnson (if he plays), David Johnson, and Andre Ellington.
Wide receivers- The battle of the wideouts isn’t really close either. Carolina has put together a respectable core of wideouts, after losing former Florida State product Kelvin Benjamin to a torn ACL in training camp. Ted Ginn has put up maybe his most productive year in his career, and Devin Funchess and Corey (Philly) Brown have provided Carolina a deep threat that has allowed the offense to succeed. On the other side, Arizona might have the best trio of wide receivers in the NFC, and the NFL in Larry Fitzgerald, John Brown, and Michael Floyd. Brown, Floyd, and Fitzgerald accounted for 3,067 of Carson Palmers 4,671 yards, and 22 touchdowns. Josh Norman and company will have their hands full, making this matchup maybe the most decisive in today’s many positional battles.
Advantage Arizona in a landslide.
Tight Ends- This battle is an intriguing one, as it features maybe the best TE not named Rob Gronkowski in Greg Olsen, and a very solid TE duo in Jermaine Gresham and Darren Fells. Much like the RB and QB battles, I think Carolina has the advantage here. Olsen put up number one WR numbers at the tight end position, as he caught 77 balls for 1104 yards and seven touchdowns.
As I said above, advantage Carolina.
Offensive Line- This is also a key to the game, as both teams will need to protect their QBs in order to protect the ball. On the Arizona side it is almost imperative that they protect Palmer, as he isn’t particularly mobile, and has a tendency to become “gun-shy” when he’s constantly pressured. On the other side, Carolina has a 6’-5” advantage, as Cam Newton can roll-out and move the pocket with his feet when necessary. In the end, while Carolina has the best player on either o-line in Ryan Kalil, I think that Arizona has the better unit.
Advantage Arizona by small amount
Defense- This to me, is the best and closest matchup today. Arizona has one of the fastest and most productive units in the league, while Carolina features the best linebacker core in the league with Luke Kuechly, Thomas Davis, and Shaq Thompson. Carolina will have to block Calais Campbell and Frostee Rucker, if they want to have success today, while the matchup between Josh Norman and Larry Fitzgerald should be fascinating. Without Jared Allen, Carolina will be relying on guys like Star Lotulelei and Charles Johnson to pressure Palmer.
These two defenses are about as even as can be, give me a push.
Special Teams- In games where two teams are as evenly matched as these two are, a lot of times it comes down to special teams, and I think this matchup is no different. Both teams have extremely good kickers in Graham Gano and Chandler Catanzaro, above average punters, and very good return games. In the end, I like the big play ability of Patrick Peterson over the big play ability of Ted Ginn. In the battle of kickers give me Gano over Catanzaro, as I feel he is the more consistent player. While the two punters, are a push.
In the end, I think special teams are a push.
Coaches- Ron Rivera is affectionately known as “Riverboat Ron” for his tendency to take some interesting risks, while Bruce Arians is the ultimate “stay the course” guy, and an offensive genus. In the end, I worry that the moment might be too big for Rivera, as Arians has coached in three of these games, and has won two Super Bowls, albeit as a coordinator, not a head coach. On the other side, Rivera, did go to the Super Bowl in 2006 with the Chicago Bears. While neither of these two have been in this spot as head coaches, I think Arians is the better option due to experience.
Prediction- As I’ve said multiple times above, this matchup is extremely interesting and intriguing, as I can see either team winning in a variety of different ways. Carolina started extremely quickly last weekend against Seattle, and have been known to start fast at home. While Arizona is 7-1 this year on the road, with the lone loss coming here in Pittsburgh in a 1 PM matchup (road west-coast teams only win about 40% of the time in 1 PM EST matchups). Carolina might have the flashier players, but I think Arizona is the better and more complete team. Give me Arizona in an exciting close game. Final score- Arizona 31, Carolina 27.