What may decide whether the Panthers or Arizona Cardinals advance to Super Bowl 50 will be the battle between the Cardinals' wide receivers and the Panthers' defensive backs.
Arizona boasts a future Hall of Famer in Larry Fitzgerald among its receivers, which are the highest-rated unit in the league, according to Pro Football Focus. They lead the league in three categories -- yards per reception, yards before contact per reception and air yards per target -- while ranking in the top five in four others.
Carolina's defense has been one of the best in the NFL at shutting down wide receivers. The Panthers' Total Quarterback Rating of 56.7 on passes to wide receivers is the stingiest in the league. Pro Bowl cornerback Josh Norman is a big reason. Opposing quarterbacks had a passer rating of 54.0 against him during the regular season, according to Pro Football Focus.
Cardinals reporter Josh Weinfuss and Panthers reporter David Newton breakdown the most intriguing matchup of Sunday's NFC Championship Game:
Weinfuss: One by one, their lockers are lined up like a murderers' row, of sorts. Fitzgerald. Michael Floyd. John Brown. Jaron Brown. J.J. Nelson. There isn't one specific thing that makes this group of receivers unique. It's five things. Each brings a specific trait and skill set to the Cardinals' offense. But to sum it up in one word, the Cardinals receivers' calling card is their diversity. While Fitzgerald can do it all, he has found success out of the slot -- which is where his two catches in overtime against Green Bay came from. Floyd is the Cardinals' big-play threat. He can go up and over defensive backs when needed. John Brown has the speed and the hands to break off a big play on a deep route or a short one. Jaron Brown flies under radar in a wide receivers' room that features a future Hall of Famer but is generally a lesser-known reliable option. And Nelson, the rookie, hasn't been utilized since Week 13, but he has the fastest wheels on the team.
Newton: There's a sign in the Carolina locker room where the secondary resides that reads "Thieves Ave." This group makes it no secret that their calling card is their ability to force turnovers. With the help of linebackers Thomas Davis and Luke Kuechly -- four interceptions each -- Carolina led the league in picks with 24. Safety Kurt Coleman led the secondary with seven. This group also became experts on using the "Peanut Punch," taught by cornerback Charles "Peanut" Tillman, to force fumbles. Cornerback Norman led the way with three. The secondary recovered seven fumbles, helping Carolina lead the league at plus-20 in the takeaway-giveaway margin. There's just a physical and mental toughness about this group. And you might find this surprising, but it starts with Coleman. He brought that hard-hitting, aggressive style to the free safety position that Carolina had in 2013 with Mike Mitchell.
Most impressive game or stretch of games
Cardinals: It all depends on who you ask. Showing Arizona's diversity, Fitzgerald started the season with four straight games of 87 yards or more, including 112 yards and three touchdowns in Week 2 and 134 yards and two touchdowns in Week 3. He followed that up with 99 yards in Week 4, the same week that John Brown began a run of 75-, 73- and 196-yard games. Brown had 65 yards and a touchdown in in Week 7, a week before Floyd began the best stretch of any Cardinals' receiver. In a stretch of seven games from Weeks 8 to 16 (he missed Week 11 with an injury), Floyd had five 100-yard games. In Week 10, in which Floyd went for 113 yards and two touchdowns, Fitzgerald had 130 yards. Brown got hot again at the end of the season with 99 yards in Week 12, 113 yards in Week 13 and 78 yards in Week 14.
Panthers: This has to be the four-game stretch in which the Panthers beat Seattle (Russell Wilson), Philadelphia (Sam Bradford), Indianapolis (Andrew Luck) and Green Bay (Aaron Rodgers). The Panthers had five of their league-best 24 regular-season interceptions against these top quarterbacks. The combined average passer rating among them was 75.6. That the Panthers got good pressure up front in each of those games is no coincidence. They had 16 of their 44 regular-season sacks in those games. A big reason Carolina was the best in the NFL at shutting down wide receivers -- remember, its Total Quarterback Rating of 56.7 on passes to wide receivers ranked first -- was the front seven did such a good job of getting quarterbacks out of their comfort zone. It's not just matchups. Carolina plays more zone and matchup zone than man-to-man. It's about the scheme working hand-in-hand.
Cardinals: Wide receiver Floyd. Throughout his career, Fitzgerald has always drawn attention from defenses, but over the last three seasons, two of which he struggled to hit 800 yards, secondaries could stray away from focusing on him and get away from it. Not so much this season. He had the most catches of his career with 109 and showed in overtime on Saturday that he's still capable of making big plays in big games. But how does that impact Floyd? Greatly. With defenses forced to keep one eye on Fitzgerald at all times this season, Floyd has been the beneficiary with single coverages, which he can take advantage of on deep plays. His 12 catches for plays of 22 yards or longer -- what the Cardinals consider explosive plays -- are a team high, and his 18 receptions on passes that traveled at least 15 yards are tied with Fitzgerald and John Brown for the team lead, according to ESPN Stats & Information data. Because of his size -- 6-foot-2, 220 pounds -- he can outjump and overpower smaller defensive backs. And he has learned from Fitzgerald how to use his body, which gives him a rather unnoticed advantage.
Panthers: Middle linebacker Kuechly. Arizona's best weapon at wide receiver is Fitzgerald, who lined up 51 percent in the slot this season. Look for nickel corner Cortland Finnegan to get help from Kuechly in defending Fitzgerald when he goes there. Kuechly had a plus-4.1 grade in coverage this past week against Seattle, according to Pro Football Focus. Russell Wilson had a 0.0 passer rating when attacking Kuechly. While Kuechly had a pick-six that was impressive, no play was more impressive than late in the fourth quarter when he came out of nowhere to knock away a pass intended for wide receiver Doug Baldwin. Although it turned into a 70-yard touchdown catch for Atlanta during the regular season because of an amazing catch by Julio Jones, Kuechly was step-for-step with arguably the league's top wide receiver 52 yards from the line of scrimmage. Kuechly's not technically a member of the secondary, but he plays a huge role in pass defense.
Something you didn't know
Cardinals: The Cardinals' receivers found mentors quickly inside the locker room after getting drafted. In 2012, Fitzgerald took Floyd -- both Minnesota men -- under his wing almost immediately, but Fitzgerald shared some tough love with Floyd, calling him out during the summer of 2012 for skipping offseason workouts with Fitzgerald back in their home state. When John Brown was drafted in 2014, he temporarily moved in with quarterback Carson Palmer in San Diego during the summer so the two could work on finding a rhythm together. And when J.J. Nelson was drafted last year, the Cardinals paired him with John Brown as roommates in training camp. Nelson quickly earned the nickname "Fire” to complement Brown's nickname, "Smokey" -- which referred to his speed.
Panthers: Cornerback Norman has a small statue of Batman in his locker. He really does consider himself the Dark Knight when he puts on his uniform. His armor includes a pair of red contact lenses that he has worn since high school. Norman plays at his best when he goes to what he calls his "dark side." The best example of that came in a Thanksgiving Day game at Dallas. Star wide receiver Dez Bryant had one catch for six yards when defended by Norman. "I went Dark Knight on him," Norman said afterward. Norman also loves speed. His Batmobile, as he likes to call it, is a black Dodge SRT Challenger Hellcat with red seats. It sounds a bit like a stock car when it leaves the parking lot.