By Zach Walker
This is a huge game and one that NFL fans will be watching for all that right reasons. The two best teams in the NFC with the two best records in the NFL will be on display. The Carolina Panthers host the slight +3 underdogs Arizona Cardinals this Sunday with the winner moving on to Super Bowl 50. Now on to the match ups to watch for and my final score prediction.
Who do the Panthers need to shut down?
DL Calais Campbell & SS Deone Bucannon – The Panthers are going to run the ball. The main men for the Cardinals trying to keep the Panthers from running all over the place are big Campbell and Bucannon. Deone Bucannon plays a unique position, where he is a safety playing the linebacker position when things get spread out. Bucannon can cover a ton of ground and is going to need to. Calais Campbell is one of few players in the league that could take Cam Newton to the ground one-on-one. Campbell is a giant, six foot eight and three bills, and this isn’t a diesel stuck in fourth gear at a traffic light, he’s got incredible speed and an impressive compliment of moves to track down Cam Newton.
Who on the Panthers, needs to step up?
RB Jonathan Stewart – Though it will be the Cam Newton show, he’s going to need some help. The read-option offense if a dangerous double-edged sword. On one side, it’s a great way to get a step on the defense. But, I’ve seen this play go south quickly, with the slight-of-hand pull of the football, there is a chance that either Stewart or Newton grips too much or not enough, and then it’s a mad scramble to find the loose change. Jonathan Stewart is going to need to take advantage of as many rushes as possible, to take some of the heat off of Cam.
Which group will give the Panthers fits?
The Cardinals’ Wide Receivers – Larry Fitzgerald appeared to explode out of stasis against the Packers. If the Cardinals get playoff Fitzgerald, they could be rolling on to Santa Clara. But the Arizona offense isn’t just Carson Palmer to Fitzgerald, it’s got multiple levels. Michael Floyd is the sort of in-between speed of John Brown and possession of Fitzgerald, and is a player to keep plays going, by staying open. The pure speed threat of John Brown is just another facet of their offense. The Panthers have a top-three corner to match against whoever the defense deems the big threat on a play, in Josh Norman, and they do have corners beyond him, but I’ll give the edge to the offense, and to Palmer, who isn’t having to escape the ‘hasn’t won a playoff game’ demon, having slayed that last week.
Which group will give the Cardinals fits?
The Panthers’ Linebackers – There isn’t a person who will watch film of previous games or during the game on Sunday, who will either mutter to themselves or share their pure admiration with those around, for Luke Kuechly. He’s the top linebacker in the game, and in my opinion a top ten player in the league, regardless of position. He can cover just about anyone, run with the fastest players in the league, and deliver the smashy goods. Kuechly can ruin an opposing team’s running game, but he doesn’t have to do it by himself. Thomas Davis is the ultimate compliment to Kuechly, just as talented, more experienced, and a leader to help guide Kuechly along. I believe if the 4-2-5 defense were to ever be an every down defense, these two linebackers would be the best possible duo to run it. The Cardinals running game is going to look like a truck, stuck in sand on a beach.
Which team is going to win this game?
I just want to watch this game, it’s got great elements. Arizona’s offense versus that Carolina D. Cam doing his ‘Super-Cam’ thing. Pepper in the brilliant play of Greg Olsen. If Carolina doesn’t turn the ball over, I think they win. If Arizona can get positive yards from their running game, I think they win. This doesn’t have the makings of a 16-13 game, and thank goodness for that, the over/under spread should be north of 47.5 for this game, because these teams can score.
Prediction: Panthers 34 – Cardinals 28