They say momentum is the most important thing in the NFL playoffs, and there’s a huge difference in that aspect between the default NFC South champions, the Carolina Panthers, and the Arizona Cardinals, who enter the postseason with their third string and rather incompetent quarterback at the helm.
Winning the NFC South two years in a row, something that hasn’t been done since the 2002 realignment, isn’t something to take lightly, but it’s hard to look at the Panthers too seriously when they finish with a 7-8-1 record. Their four consecutive wins to end the season came after 10 straight games without a win. All of a sudden, thanks to a soft finish on the schedule, they looked like the team from last season that was good enough to earn a bye week going into the postseason.
Maybe it’s good that there’s no bye for them this time. They’re coming off two huge wins over direct rivals for the playoff race, and have been in something of a do-or-die game four weeks in a row, beginning with that improbable 41-10 road win in New Orleans against the stunned Saints, capped off by the 34-3 demolition of the Atlanta Falcons inside the Georgia dome. There are other teams on long winning streaks going into this postseason, but the Panthers, because of that switch from depths of despair to hope and success might be riding higher than anyone.
It’s quite different for the Cardinals. They did make the playoffs after an 11-5 season, but they’ve lost their last two games and look quite incompetent offensively since Lindley took over for Carson Palmer and then Drew Stanton. It’s incredible how unlucky one team can be: The same run of injuries and bad luck in the same order happened earlier this season. Who would have believed it was going to come back and strike at them in the same way only in the worst of times again?
And what can Lindley do? He’s completing just 48.4% of his passes and has thrown more touchdowns than interceptions. Pressure might have been off of him if the Cardinals had a running game, but they are ranked 31st in the NFL when it comes to running the ball, and it’s not because they have some “air-raid” offense to lean on. At 81.8 rushing yards per game, helping Lindley move the chains is going to be very difficult. Relying on their ability to generate turnovers (+14 differential) might be their best way of scoring points in this game.
Cam Newton has rushed for 114 yards on 18 carries, looking healthy for the first time this season, not having to lean on slow and aching legs to propell the Panthers with a mediocre passing game. Has has more first downs through his legs in the last two games than the Cardinals has had through rushing in the last two weeks, which is another angle shedding the same kind of light on the problem we mentioned earlier.
Despite being a very flawed team, the Panthers might be regarded as huge favorites in this game against the 11-5 Cardinals. As long as Newton and co. don’t drop the ball and turn it over, it’s hard seeing any way the Cardinals have to match them score for score.