When: Saturday, 4:35 p.m. ET. Where: Bank of America Stadium, Charlotte, N.C. TV: ESPN
Two teams whose seasons are going in opposite directions collide in Saturday’s NFC wild-card game at Bank of America Stadium.
The Arizona Cardinals (11-5) started the season 9-1, but they’ve lost two straight and four of their last six since their quarterback situation became decimated by injuries.
The Carolina Panthers (7-8-1) went seven straight games without a victory before winning their final four to capture the NFC South title for the second straight season with a 34-3 victory at Atlanta in the regular-season finale.
NFL Nation Cardinals reporter Joshua Weinfuss and Panthers reporter David Newton are here to break down this 4:35 p.m. matchup.
Newton: Josh, I’m sure you get hit with the same question every week recently, but how much of a mess is the quarterback situation at Arizona?
Weinfuss: It’s definitely a mess, there’s no doubt about that. But after last weekend’s loss, it doesn’t look to be as big of a catastrophe as once believed. It’s unlikely, in my opinion, Drew Stanton starts against Carolina. If he does, that would put him at 23 days between games. With the Cardinals playing to survive and advance, I’m not sure it’s the wisest decision to play him. If you would’ve asked me that question before Week 17, my response would’ve been different. But after watching Ryan Lindley play as well as he did, despite making a few costly mistakes, I think he’s more capable of playing on this level. The biggest difference Sunday was how the offense was tailored down and the Cardinals slowed the game down. It worked. He didn’t lose that game, that’s for certain. But last week, the quarterback situation was definitely a sideshow with Cardinals coach Bruce Arians declaring Logan Thomas the starter, then saying he was playing at least a half, then backtracking on that, and then finally naming Lindley the starter. This week -- thus far at least -- seems a bit calmer.
David, there’s really no other way to put this besides: What’s gotten into the Panthers the last four weeks?
Newton: It’s twofold. First, everybody got healthy. The offensive line had been a mess due to injuries and inexperience. But the same five have started five games in a row, developing a continuity and consistency that wasn’t there much of the season. That has allowed quarterback Cam Newton to do his thing as a runner and a passer. The fact that Jonathan Stewart has been one of the most productive runners in the NFL during that stretch has given that unit balance. Then there’s the defense. The Panthers have been playing at a top-10 level the past nine games. But inserting more speed in the secondary with rookie cornerback Bene' Benwikere and rookie free safety Tre Boston has elevated that group to the level it was last season, when it was second in the NFL. The emergence of Josh Norman as a shutdown corner also has been key. The Panthers basically are using the same formula that worked last season: Pressure the quarterback, stop the run and create turnovers.
The Arizona defense has been stout at limiting points allowed this season. What has been the key, and is that group playing well enough to make the Cardinals a contender despite the quarterback issues?
Weinfuss: The key was -- emphasis on was -- how well Arizona stopped the run this season and how many turnovers it was creating. Arizona’s turnover margin was plus-11 as the Cardinals ran out to a 9-1 record. It has been minus-three in the six games since. Is it a coincidence that Arizona’s defense began allowing 100-yard rushing games -- five in their last six -- right when it started losing? No. I think it’s a direct reason why the Cardinals dropped four of their final six games. Through the first 10 games, the defense was playing well enough to make Arizona a contender regardless of who was at QB. Now? Not the case anymore.
The Panthers seem to be peaking at the right time, especially with their running game. How much can Cam Newton take credit for the running game taking that next step, and how effective can it be against a Cardinals defense that allowed more than 200 yards in its last two games?
Newton: The threat of Newton as a runner certainly helps. But it’s way more than that. As I mentioned above, Stewart is running better than at any point in his career now that he’s completely healthy. And the line that was criticized for much of the season is winning the battle in the trenches. It starts with the inside group. Center Ryan Kalil has been steady all season, but the emergence of left guard Andrew Norwell and right guard Trai Turner has solidified that group, which was constantly making mistakes early in the season. Then there’s right tackle Mike Remmers, who was on the Rams' practice squad the first half of the season. He’s played so well that he’s earned a right to start next season. That Newton is making smart decisions on the read-option makes it tough for teams to load up against the run as it did earlier in the season. The Panthers are averaging about 195 yards rushing the last five games, so this appears to be strength against weakness.
The Cardinals lost twice to a Seattle team that relies on a running quarterback. Russell Wilson had 88 yards on six carries in the second loss. What is Arizona doing to adjust to facing another running quarterback in Newton? And is stopping him the primary concern there?
Weinfuss: You can’t forget what Colin Kaepernick just did to them on Sunday, running for 63 yards. The Cardinals are focusing on staying gap-sound and true to their assignments this week, which is what hurt them most against those two quarterbacks -- that and missed tackles. The Cardinals have 27 missed tackles in the last two games, according to Pro Football Focus. If they can’t wrap up Newton, then he’s going to be running wild all over the field. Even with how tough the Panthers’ running game is, and how much of a threat tight end Greg Olsen can become, I think stopping Newton is Arizona’s top priority and concern. Once he begins running, the Cardinals’ defense will be susceptible to an entirely different set of plays that’ll put a lot of pressure on Arizona’s front seven.
The Carolina defense has 14 of its 40 sacks and nine of its 26 turnovers in the last four games. Can they carry that momentum into the playoffs, and how important is it for them to have a home game?
Newton: There’s no reason to think they can’t, particularly facing a quarterback in his first playoff game. They’re flying around and playing at a level that is every bit as good as last year’s defense, which carried the team. That the sacks finally are starting to come has been key. The pressure has made good quarterbacks such as Drew Brees and Matt Ryan look average. Defensive end Charles Johnson is playing at arguably his highest level of his career. The front four is getting such a big push that it disrupts what the opponent wants to do without having to commit other players to a blitz. Then there’s Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis, arguably the best pair of linebackers in the NFL. The front seven that was promoted as one of the best in the league before the season finally is playing as advertised. They’ve found a personnel grouping that really works, and they’re having fun again. They’re peaking at the right time.