The funny thing about the upcoming NFC championship game between the Arizona Cardinals and the Carolina Panthers is that the weather might make everything we know about these teams useless, considering how both of them aren’t used to play in these kind of conditions.
It’s not going to look like winter wonderland, as it did for the Panthers during practice this week, but it’s not going to be above 40 during the day, and the temperature will be quickly dropping to freezing as the sun sets. The game does begin at 6:40 PM Eastern time, which means it might not be snowy, but the field might be icy, slippery and the concerns over the conditions of it, as it was shown in the divisional playoff game against the Seahawks, aren’t gone.
The Panthers went 15-1 during the regular season and looked perfect for one half against the Seahawks in a 31-24 playoff win. It’s the first time in a decade that the Panthers make it into football’s final four, hosting the game this time, playing with the swagger of champions, which is usually part of their incredible starts before letting the game slowly fall back to the mean, which got a little bit dangerous in their win against the Seahawks last week.
Both teams present the two most clinical offense in the NFL: The Panthers averaged 31.6 points per game, the Cardinals are right behind with 30.6. Both teams scored 35 regular season touchdowns through passing, while Arizona were tied for the lead in the NFL this season with 19 rushing touchdowns. This isn’t just Jonathon Stewart with six this season, but mostly Cam Newton scoring 10 rushing touchdowns this season, and a little bit of Mike Tolbert, who does very well in both the passing and running game.
The Cardinals weren’t far behind, finally, after years of being one of the worst in the NFL in that category, getting a good running game. Even the Chris Johnson injury didn’t stop them from gaining nicely on the ground, and might have him back for the Super Bowl, if they make it. David Johnson scored 8 rushing touchdowns this season and open space is dangerous when you’re the defense against him. Andre Ellington helped out with three TDs on the ground, as Arizona finished with 16.
Both teams can score in more than one way, and not just the offense. Johnson has a kick return for a touchdown this season and is probably one of the more dangerous playmakers in the NFL today. Both teams returned four interceptions for touchdowns this season while the Panthers led the NFL with 24 interceptions in 2015. The Cardinals were fourth with 19. Palmer’s tendencies are an issue. He threw two of them in the win over the Green Bay Packers, and the Panthers might be more punishing in that aspect.
One more thing to look out for is the two main receivers for both teams. Seven different players on the Cardinals caught at least two touchdown passes this season, including two having 1000-yard seasons. But Larry Fitzgerald is obviously the one to look out for. Enabling him to bust out for a big day like he did against the Packers will make things very difficult for the Panthers. Newton relies on his tight end to get him out of tough spots (7 touchdowns too) while Ted Ginn Jr., despite the holes in his hands, is the one who scored the most touchdowns with 10. But Olsen opens up everything if Newton gets him going.
Predictions: It’ll come down to the mistakes the two very good defenses are capable of getting out of each other. Palmer making two interceptions like last week won’t be forgiven or so easily overcome.