It’s only fitting that the 2016 NFC Championship Game comes down to the Carolina Panthers and Arizona Cardinals. The two teams were the conference’s best in the regular season, combining to go 28-4, and the winner might be favored in Super Bowl 50.
Las Vegas odds makers have made the No.1 seed Panthers three-point favorites over the visiting Cardinals, indicating that they would be even on a neutral field. But Carolina has been the better team all year long, and they have the edge in Sunday’s contest.
Heading into the divisional playoffs, Arizona had better Super Bowl odds than Carolina. The Cardinals were set to face a flawed Green Bay Packers team, while the Panthers had the tough task of hosting the red-hot Seattle Seahawks. Arizona, however, barely got past Green Bay in overtime, while Carolina won their second-round playoff game by jumping out to a 31-0 lead in the first half.
After going 15-1 and defeating the defending NFC champs, it’s hard for anyone to doubt the Panthers now.
“It was like that throughout the year: ‘Oh, they’re undefeated, but they haven’t played anybody,” Panthers running back Mike Tolbert said following Sunday’s victory. “This pretty much puts a stamp on the type of team we are.”
Carolina didn’t play the most difficult schedule in the 2015 season, facing just four winning teams and two teams that won more than nine games. Arizona faced six teams that won at least 10 games on their way to claiming the AFC West title.
Going 13-3, the Cardinals had their best regular season in the Super Bowl era. The team ranked first in total offense and fifth in total defense, making them one of the most well-rounded teams the NFL has seen in recent years.
Carson Palmer had an MVP-caliber regular season, throwing for 4,671 yards, 35 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. He had a passer rating of at least 98.1 in 13 games, and he was aided by a top rushing attack, despite dealing with multiple injuries at the position. Rookie David Johnson has been every bit as good as the now-injured Chris Johnson, and Arizona’s offense has provided more than enough scoring for a defense that allows less than 20 points per game.
Without big-name playmakers on offense, the Panthers have had doubters all season long. The Cardinals are led by a rejuvenated Larry Fitzgerald and another 1,000-yard receiver in Josh Brown, giving Palmer more weapons than Cam Newton. But Carolina’s quarterback still led the league with 45 total touchdowns, elevating a subpar wide receiving corps and performing like the best player in football.
Newton had a 108.3 passer rating against Seattle after posting a career-high 99.4 rating in the regular season. Along with the NFL’s second-best tight end in Greg Olsen and a defense that creates more turnovers than any other, the Panthers led the league in scoring.
In nine games prior to Sunday’s contest, Russell Wilson had thrown just one interception. He was picked off twice in Carolina, including a Luke Kuechly interception that was brought back for a touchdown. Four of Palmer’s 11 interceptions came in Arizona’s three losses, and it will be difficult for the quarterback to avoid committing turnovers against the Panthers.
With the NFL’s best linebacker in Kuechly, a top cornerback in Josh Norman and a defense that ranks sixth in sacks, Carolina will force Arizona to make costly mistakes. All season long, the Panthers have turned opposing teams’ mistakes into points, and the NFC Championship Game should be no different.
The Panthers beat the Cardinals in the wild-card round of last season’s playoffs, 27-16. One year later, they are very different teams, now that Palmer is healthy and Newton is playing like the NFL MVP.
Carolina has won 12 straight home games, and there seems to be nothing that can stop them from making their second ever trip to the Super Bowl.
Prediction: Carolina over Arizona, 30-20