After having their best regular season in franchise history, the Carolina Panthers seem destined to reach the Super Bowl for just the second time. In order to do so, they’ll have to go through the Arizona Cardinals in the NFC Championship Game Sunday.
Carolina has been the NFL’s best team all season long, going 15-1 and winning two more games than Arizona. The Panthers picked up right where they left off when they returned to the field after their bye last week, defeating the red-hot Seattle Seahawks, who were the pick of many experts to reach Super Bowl 50. Arizona barely got by the Green Bay Packers in overtime, and their quest to win their first Super Bowl has a good chance to end on Sunday.
The Panthers are three-point favorites in Sunday’s game, and a few reasons stand out why they will beat the Cardinals on their way to the 2016 Super Bowl.
MVP At Quarterback
Carson Palmer will get some MVP consideration, and deservedly so, but Cam Newton has been the NFL’s best player this season. Not only is Newton the clear choice for MVP, but his play has improved as the season’s gone along. With 45 total touchdowns and 10 interceptions on the year, the quarterback has totaled 26 of those scores and just one interception in the last two months. He’s posted passer ratings of 104.4 or better in eight of his last 10 games.
Arizona has one of the NFL’s top defenses, but they’ve been burned by a few of the league’s top quarterbacks. Russell Wilson threw for three touchdowns against the Cardinals in Week 17, and Andy Dalton threw for 315 yards in a 31-point effort by the Cincinnati Bengals. Arizona shut down Aaron Rodgers in the regular season, but they allowed him to make some big plays in last week’s playoff game, and Newton’s ability to use his legs could give the Cardinals some trouble.
No Defensive Flaws
Carolina has the MVP at quarterback while scoring more points than any team in the NFL, but their defense has been just as important to their success. The Cardinals ended the regular season ranked first in total offense, but Arizona has had trouble scoring in their last two games, and that could continue Sunday.
Ranking sixth in points allowed, the Panthers have no holes on defense. Cornerback Josh Norman might be the best defensive back in the NFL, and linebacker Luke Kuechly has solidified his spot as the league’s best. The team’s defensive line has been very good, with more sacks than all but five teams and led by Kawann Short, who is as good of a pass rusher as any defensive tackle in the NFL. Palmer has a difficult task ahead of him, facing the No. 1 ranked team in opponents’ passer rating.
The Cardinals have only lost this season when committing more turnovers than their opponent, and if any team can cause Arizona to make a few costly mistakes it’s Carolina. The Panthers led the regular season with 39 takeaways, and that carried over into the divisional round. Carolina intercepted Russell Wilson twice in the first quarter, including a pick-six by Kuechly that put the Seahawks in a hole that they could not recover from.
Arizona lost the turnover battle 3-0 in all three of their losses, while the team had just 15 total giveaways in their 13 regular-season wins. Even last week as the Cardinals struggled to beat the Packers, Arizona committed two turnovers to Green Bay’s one. The Cardinals are the second-best team at forcing turnovers, but the Panthers don’t beat themselves. Newton has thrown one interception in the last nine games, and running back Jonathan Stewart has lost one fumble in his previous seven games.