The Arizona Cardinals are underdogs against the Carolina Panthers in Sunday's 2016 NFC Championship Game, but the No. 2 seed has a realistic chance to pull off the upset. They are just three-point underdogs on the road, and few experts would be surprised if they went on to win Super Bowl 50.
Arizona is arguably the most well-rounded team left in the playoffs, ranking in the top five in both total offense and total defense. Going 13-3 in the regular season and winning more games than any AFC team, the Cardinals are led by an MVP candidate and one of the best coaches in the NFL. Playing on the road might not affect Arizona much, since the Cardinals are 7-1 away from home.
The Cardinals had trouble in the divisional playoffs against the Green Bay Packers, but they managed to win in overtime. Head coach Bruce Arians admitted that Carson Palmer was conservative in his first postseason game of the season, and that should change in Carolina.
There are a few ways the Cardinals can upset the Panthers Sunday night.
Carolina Blows Another Lead
The Panthers have a number of big wins this season, defeating eight teams by double-digits. But Carolina has blown plenty of large leads, almost losing a few games that should never have been close. If the No. 1 seed takes their foot off the gas pedal Sunday, Arizona will make them pay.
Carolina’s 31-0 halftime lead over the Seattle Seahawks in the divisional playoffs was cut to 31-24, but the Seahawks just didn’t have enough to complete the comeback last week. The Panthers blew a 35-7 lead against the New York Giants in Week 15, but the Giants’ defense wasn’t good enough to prevent the Panthers from scoring a last-second field goal. The Indianapolis Colts overcame a 23-6 deficit in the fourth quarter, but the Panthers outlasted them in overtime.
Should Arians put immediate pressure on the Panthers, and the Cardinals avoid first-half mistakes, the game should swing to Arizona in the final quarter. In the last five games, the Panthers have scored 111 total points in the first half, compared to 47 in the second half. Carolina has only one fourth-quarter touchdown in their last five games.
Carson Outplays Cam
Cam Newton is going to win the MVP award, but Palmer was nearly as good as him this season. Throwing for just as many touchdowns and 834 more yards, Palmer has a chance to outperform the Panthers quarterback Sunday and bounce back from an uneven performance against the Packers.
Newton might have had the overall better year, but Palmer was the NFL’s most consistent quarterback in the 2015 season. He posted a 98.1 passer rating or better in 12 games, while Newton did so just eight times. Newton wasn’t nearly as good at the start of the year, throwing nine picks in the first eight games, and it’s not impossible that he could struggle against a top defense like Arizona. With the NFL’s No. 1 offense, the Cardinals are never out of the game, even if Carolina takes an early lead. Palmer had big games against top pass defenses like the Seattle Seahawks and Cincinnati Bengals, and he could do the same against Carolina.
Arizona Wins The Battle In The Trenches
Palmer doesn’t make plays because of his mobility like Newton, and the Cardinals need to give him time to make throws. The Panthers have been very good at getting to opposing quarterbacks, ranking sixth in the regular season in sacks and sacking Russell Wilson five times in last week’s victory. But Arizona might be able to hold off Carolina’s defensive line, giving them a chance to put up points on Sunday.
Palmer was sacked just 25 times in the regular season, and only Ryan Fitzpatrick was sacked fewer times while starting more than 13 games. Newton ranked 12th among all quarterbacks with 33 sacks, and he was sacked just once in Carolina’s win over Seattle. The Cardinals’ defensive line has played very well in some of their wins against top teams, sacking Aaron Rodgers eight times in the regular season, and getting to Andy Dalton four times in their win over Cincinnati.