The Arizona Cardinals (11-5), who owned the best record in the NFC for much of the year, face the Carolina Panthers (7-8-1) on Wild Card Weekend 2015, who finished the regular season with four fewer wins. Despite their accomplishments in 2014, the No.5 seed in the conference isn’t expected to advance to the second round of the playoffs.
Arizona visits Carolina as a 5.5-point underdog at Las Vegas casinos, meaning the team would barely be favored if they were at home. The Panthers had the worst regular season of any playoff team, losing eight of their first 12 games, and only winning the NFC South because it was one of the worst divisions in league history. However, the Cardinals have been so bad and banged up in recent weeks that the betting line continues to move in favor of Carolina.
Since Week 10, the Cardinals have been on a downward spiral. That’s when Carson Palmer tore his ACL and was lost for the season. While Drew Stanton was serviceable and Arizona went 5-3 with him as a starter, the team struggled on offense. In Stanton’s last four starts, the Cardinals went 2-2 and failed to score more than 18 points in a game.
The injury that’s kept Stanton out since Week 15 is likely to prohibit him from playing on Saturday, forcing head coach Bruce Arians to start Ryan Lindley for a third straight game. Arizona lost the last two games of the season with Lindley at the helm, being outscored 55-23.
Lindley posted a 70.0 passer rating in the regular season finale, completing 23 of 39 passes for 316 yards, two scores and three interceptions. The quarterback had been so bad in his previous games that the performance was a significant improvement. In eight other career games, Lindley had thrown no touchdowns and eight interceptions.
No matter who has been at quarterback for Arizona, Arians has expressed confidence in his team. He said he thought the Cardinals could win a Super Bowl with Stanton as their starter, and he told reporters he feels good about the team’s chances with Lindley in the game.
"Obviously, we're all much more comfortable with Ryan after his performance today," Arians said, via the Arizona Republic, after Arizona lost in San Francisco in Week 17. "And we look forward to the challenge."
Arizona has the worst offense of any playoff team. They finished the season ranking 24th in points per game (19.4), and in addition to being down to their third starting quarterback, only one team averaged fewer than the Cardinals’ 81.8 rushing yards per game in 2014.
The Cardinals’ defense might be the reason why Arians is so confident. The unit boasts the league’s fifth-best scoring defense, though they didn’t play as well down the stretch. Arizona allowed more than 20 points just once in the first 11 games. Two opponents scored 29 points or more against the Cardinals in the final five contests. Saturday’s over/under is 38 points.
Carolina is no offensive juggernaut. Other than whatever backup quarterback the Cardinals start, Cam Newton is among the worst signal callers of the 12 playoff teams. In the regular season, he ranked 26th in passer rating (82.1), 21st in passing yards (3,127), 29th in completion percentage (58.5) and tied for 19th in passing touchdowns. He did rush for 539 yards and five scores.
The Panthers aren’t dominant in any facet of the game, ranking 19th in scoring offense (21.2) and 21st in scoring defense (23.4). Carolina went undefeated in December, including two, crucial 31-point victories over the New Orleans Saints and Atlanta Falcons that helped them win the NFC South. Now, the Panthers must prove they can defeat a winning team.
Of the Panthers' seven victories, only one came against an opponent that finished 2014 with a record above .500. Carolina went winless in six of their seven contests against winning teams.
Prediction: Carolina over Arizona, 23-13