No need to debate any longer.
Sunday’s NFC Championship Game at Carolina's Bank of America Stadium sets up to be a classic.
It pits the teams with the two best records -- Carolina is 16-1, Arizona 14-3 -- and the quarterbacks who figure to finish high in the MVP voting.
It pits the league’s No. 1 scoring team (Carolina, 31.2 points per game) against the league's No. 2 scoring team (Arizona, 30.6 PPG). It pits the league’s No. 5 defense (Arizona) against the league's No. 6 defense (Carolina).
The only thing more fitting would be if this were the Super Bowl.
NFL Nation reporters David Newton (Panthers) and Josh Weinfuss (Cardinals) are here to break this one down:
Newton: Josh, I read that some of the Cardinals were looking forward to a rematch with the Seahawks. Do they look at the Panthers as the easier matchup?
Weinfuss: I don’t get the sense they think the Panthers are the easier matchup. Rather, I think they looked at playing the Seahawks as an opportunity to get even with a team that embarrassed them a few weeks ago. The Cardinals are obviously more familiar with the Seahawks, playing them twice per season, so I think that also had a lot to do with their comments. The Cardinals haven’t faced the Panthers since last season's playoffs. We all know how that game turned out, but both teams were quite different then. From talking to the Cardinals, they know the Panthers present a unique set of challenges, especially with Newton behind center.
David, how different are the Panthers from a year ago, and how has Newton matured the most?
Newton: There goes that maturity line again. It seems everyone outside of Carolina believes Newton’s improvement has more to do with maturing than simply growing and developing as a quarterback. Some people still focus on him sulking under a towel during a loss three years ago.
As for the first part of your question, the Panthers aren’t significantly different. But they are significantly better. Newton and offensive coordinator Mike Shula have a full grasp of what this zone-read offense can be. That’s why players such as wide receiver Ted Ginn Jr., who was almost invisible with the Cardinals last season, looked like a Pro Bowler with 10 touchdown catches. Newton also is healthier than he has ever been -- that’s why you’ve seen him run at a record pace. But mostly Newton is seeing things like blitzes better than ever. He’s making smart decisions. He has become a complete quarterback -- perhaps the most dangerous quarterback in the NFL because he can beat you in so many ways.
While we’re on quarterbacks, you’ve been touting Palmer as the league MVP for most of the season. I’ve been saying the award should go to Newton. Who would you rather have?
Weinfuss: Great question, and hard to answer. Despite Newton having more postseason experience than Palmer, neither has played in a conference championship game. On the one hand, I’d say Palmer because he’s older and more experienced. When the pressure is on, he’s a quarterback who comes through in the clutch -- just look at how he led Arizona to an incredible overtime win over Green Bay last weekend. On the other hand, Newton is such a freak physically that I’d want him to lead me to the Super Bowl. He’s so dynamic and so dangerous -- he can run like a tailback but then throw a spot-on dart down the field. Overall I’d side with Palmer -- and not because I cover him, either. This is the type of game where nerves will be running high and whoever makes the biggest plays late will win. Palmer has proven he’s more capable of that.
The Cardinals need to worry about stopping one player and one player only to stamp their ticket to the Super Bowl: Super Cam. Just how good is he, and how tough is he to stop?
Newton: Because we’re in the presidential debate season, let me address something you said before answering your questions. You’re saying Palmer will be cooler under fire because he’s older and more experienced? I don’t buy that. Newton has been on the big stage before, leading Auburn to a 14-0 record and national championship. He loves the spotlight. He lives for these moments. I don’t see nerves being a factor.
Now for your questions. Newton is incredibly tough to stop because his offensive line is playing at a high level, allowing him to use his legs and arm to maximum efficiency. His confidence is at an all-time high. The best game plan for stopping him might be to load up on the run and dare him to beat you with his arm. He can do that, but Carolina thrives on balance, ending the season with 27 consecutive regular-season games with at least 100 yards rushing. Make Newton one-dimensional and see what happens.
Speaking of game plans, what happened to Arizona’s running game against Green Bay, and what will that mean if the Cardinals can’t run against the league’s fourth-ranked run defense?
Weinfuss: If the Cardinals can’t run against the Panthers, they’ll start throwing the ball. A lot. Against Green Bay, Arizona threw 14 times in the first half, compared to 24 times in the first half. Coach Bruce Arians said the Cardinals have been getting their butts kicked up front in the run game. If the running game gets stuffed early, I wouldn’t be surprised if Arizona just abandons it and goes for the win in the air. They have the weapons. Palmer had the best season of his career, and wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald has been revitalized.
Arians raved about the interior of the Panthers' defensive line, but there are people who believe Carolina linebacker Luke Kuechly belongs in the MVP conversation. Where is this defense’s strengths?
Newton: Kuechly should be considered for NFL Defensive MVP. He’s playing better now than he did in 2013, when he won the award. The front seven is as good as any in the NFL for two reasons -- well, actually four reasons. Kawann Short and Star Lotulelei at defensive tackle, and Kuechly and Thomas Davis at linebacker. Short is playing better than any tackle in the league -- if he can create the pressure he’s been getting, it will be tough for Palmer to step up in the pocket and make clean throws. There are no two better linebackers than Kuechly and Davis.
I’ll give you that Palmer and his receivers have been spectacular. But the Panthers have faced and beaten Aaron Rodgers, Russell Wilson, Andrew Luck (when he was healthy), Drew Brees and Eli Manning this year. They’ve given up some yards, sure, but they've survived. The difference is the secondary isn’t as strong with cornerback Robert McClain and nickel corner Cortland Finnegan, who weren’t on the roster most of the season, starting for injured players. Regardless, this should be a classic.