NFL Playoff Preview - Arizona (11-5) at Carolina (7-8-1)
By John McMullen, NFL Editor
(SportsNetwork.com) - The Carolina Panthers didn't win a football game for over eight weeks at one point this season and now they are set to host a wild- card playoff game as the favorite.
Such is life in the war of attrition that is the NFL.
The NFC South champions will open up the NFL postseason on Saturday against an 11-win Arizona team that will be relying on its third-string quarterback Ryan Lindley.
Despite ping-ponging from Carson Palmer to Drew Stanton back to Palmer and back to Stanton before Lindley due to injuries the Cardinals tied a franchise record with the 11 victories and have won 21 total games in their first two seasons under the likely NFL Coach of the Year, Bruce Arians.
Arizona has also won four of its past six postseason games, including a 33-13 win at Carolina on Jan. 10, 2009 in the divisional round, the only prior matchup between these teams in the playoffs.
"It's a whole new season now," Arians said. "We're all 0-0 and we're in the tournament. We're going to get ready for this playoff game. We're not planning on being one-and-done."
Few ever plan to be one-and-done but the Cardinals have an uphill battle in trying to avoid that fate.
Arizona comes in having lost two in a row, including a 20-17 Week 17 loss at the 49ers in what turned out to be Jim Harbaugh's final game as San Francisco's head coach.
Lindley did throw his first two career touchdown passes to Michael Floyd in the setback and completed 23-of-39 passes for a career-high 316 yards but he also was picked off three times. Floyd, meanwhile, made eight catches for 153 yards and Kerwynn Williams ran it 17 times for 67 yards.
"It's a loss and no one wants to lose in the NFL, but I think we gained some confidence," said Lindley. "We ran the ball a lot better this week. We did a great job of pass protection ... Floyd had a great day."
Despite their less-than-stellar record, the Panthers enter the tournament red hot, having won four straight while outscoring opponents 111-43 over that span.
Under head coach Ron Rivera, Carolina became the first team to win back-to- back NFC South division titles after a dominating 34-3 winner-take-all road win at Atlanta last weekend.
In the month of December, the Panthers formula for turning things around was running the football coupled with stingy defense, ranking second in the NFL in both rushing offense (199.3 yards per game) and points allowed (10.8 points per game) during the month.
"We put ourselves in this position by playing the way we did in December," Rivera said. "We've won the NFC South two years in a row and that's something to build on as we move forward as a football team."
Against the Falcons, Carolina returned two Matt Ryan interceptions for touchdowns and scored a total of 21 points off three turnovers.
The Panthers' defense harassed Ryan all day, piling up six sacks and hurrying the veteran QB into uncharacteristic mistakes, resulting in an overthrown pass that was returned 31 yards for a touchdown by Roman Harper in the second quarter. Later in the third quarter, an underthrown pass was picked by Tre Boston and returned 84 yards to put the game out of reach.
"They played the way you need to play in these types of situations," said Ryan. "They executed at a high level and we did not, across the board."
Cam Newton didn't have to do much against the Falcons, and finished with 114 yards passing and a touchdown while adding 51 yards on the ground, including a 4-yard touchdown scramble after an Atlanta fumble in the first half.
"This game meant so much to, not only myself, but my teammates," said Newton. "We were playing for so much. We did a lot that a lot of people didn't expect us to do."
Jonathan Stewart carried the ball 13 times for 49 yards while starting again in place of DeAngelo Williams, who sat for the fourth straight game with a broken hand.
Carolina leads its all-time series with the Cards by an 8-5 margin, including the prior postseason loss. In the playoffs as a whole the Panthers are 6-5 all-time while the Cardinals are under water at 6-7.
The winner this week will advance to face either top-seeded Seattle or No. 2 Green Bay in the divisional round. If Dallas beats Detroit on Sunday, the winner will play at the Seahawks. If Detroit wins, the winner travels to Green Bay.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
If you are wondering why Arians is the odds on favorite to win his second Coach of the Year award, consider this: Injuries have been an issue for Arizona dating all the way back to training camp when star defensive tackle Darnell Dockett was lost for the season to a knee injury. When you add it all up, the Cards have been without 21 different players at some point this season and that group has missed a collective 109 games. Add in suspended star linebacker Daryl Washington and those numbers jump to 22 and 125.
The health at the quarterback position has been particularly troubling. Palmer has missed 10 games, first with a nerve issue in his shoulder before a season-ending ACL tear. His backup, Stanton, then went down with a knee injury of his own, which has been complicated by an infection.
Palmer won all six of his starts this season and 13 of 15 dating back to 2013 so this is a completely different club with him under center, one that was on its way to earning the top seed in the conference.
Without Palmer or Stanton, Arizona's big-play defense will have to carry the day if the team hopes to leave the Tar Heel State with a win. Defensive coordinator Todd Bowles is getting a lot of bites as a head-coaching candidate because he has cobbled together a solid unit despite the absence of stalwarts like Washington, Dockett and John Abraham (concussion issues.)
The group isn't that great on paper, ranked 24th in the NFL by allowing 368.2 yards per game, but it does force the issue as evidenced by the team's plus-8 turnover ratio, which is third in the NFC.
Talented cornerbacks Patrick Peterson and Antonio Cromartie are prone to taking chances but can shift momentum at any time with their impressive man- to-man coverage skills. The Cardinals' defense had 18 total interceptions in the regular season with four players snaring three-or-more, safety Rashad Johnson (four) and Cromartie, Peterson and fellow corner Jerraus Powers with three apiece.
The Panthers' offense is the definition of mediocre, 16th in a 32-team league at 346.7 ypg but they have some real threats in rookie receiver Kelvin Benjamin as well as star tight end Greg Olsen, who both finished with over 1,000 receiving yards.
Carolina could also get a boost in the backfield with the potential return of Williams from the broken hand. The veteran was actually probable last week but was deactivated because he was deemed a liability in pass protection. Stewart, meanwhile, has been solid in his absence, rushing for 486 yards since Williams was forced to the sideline.
"(Williams is a) part of why we are where we are today," Rivera said. "When he's healthy and ready to go he'll get his opportunities to get on the field."
Arians, meanwhile, is very concerned with the dual threat Newton brings to the table, calling him tougher to defend than other QBs who have a similar skill set like Seattle's Russell Wilson and the Niners' Colin Kaepernick.
"He presents different problems than Colin and Russell," Arians said. "He's more of a combination of both those guys. He can really throw the football extremely well from the pocket. It presents a multitude of problems for us."
The Panthers won't be having those same problems. There is no other way to say it than other than Arizona is behind the 8-ball on offense with Lindley, who simply isn't a competent starter at this level.
Conversely the Panthers' defense has been hitting its stride lately and finished the season 10th overall (339.8 ypg) after the strong December.
Without the exiled Greg Hardy, linebackers Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis are the unquestioned difference makers. The All-Pro Kuechly led NFL with 153 tackles and also leads with 473 stops since entering the league in 2012. His running mate, Davis, is almost as productive, finishing second on the club in tackles with 100.
In Hardy's absence. Charles Johnson has taken over as the unit's best pass rusher with 8 1/2 sacks, his fifth consecutive season with eight-or-more QB takedowns. The consistent Johnson is the only NFC player with 50-or-more sacks (52 1/2) and 13-or-more forced fumbled (13) since 2010. The defensive backfield is headlined by Harper, who led the team with a career-high four interceptions, but really took off when rookies Boston, Harper's running mate at safety, and cornerback Bene Benwikere entered the lineup.
"We were trying to find answers as a coaching staff, the right combination of guys -- and we found it," Rivera said when discussing his rookies.
With all three levels hitting on all cylinders in December the group has limited opposing quarterbacks to a 64.6 passer rating -- second only to the Seahawks' dominant defense.
Lindley, meanwhile, is 1-5 as a starter as a professional and had thrown an NFL-record 229 pass attempts without a touchdown before finding Floyd on a gimmick flea-flicker play last week.
"It was good to get the monkey off my back a little bit," Lindley said.
The real hope, though, is that Stanton could make the miracle recovery and be under center by Saturday.
"He's progressing and nothing's really changed," Arians admitted when asked about Stanton. "We've got our fingers crossed that possibly he could go later in the week."
Since 1936, no team has scored fewer points than Arizona over the final six games and still made the playoffs.
The Cardinals have continually called Stanton's knee injury a sprain. In reality, though, it was a partially torn ACL and a Grade 2 MCL sprain further exacerbated by an infection which had to be drained. He's not walking through that door at Bank of America Stadium on Saturday to save Arizona.
Carolina, though, is bringing what has been the second best defense in football over the past month.
"It tells you that no matter what you do during the regular season, it just doesn't matter," Stewart said of his team's renewed optimism. "Things amp up to a whole different notch in the playoffs."
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Panthers 21, Cardinals 17
01/03 11:45:27 ET