Arizona Cardinals (14-3 SU, 9-8 ATS) vs. Carolina Panthers (16-1 SU, 12-5 ATS)
NFC Conference Championship Game
Date/Time: Sunday, January 24, 2016 at 6:40PM EST
Where: Bank of America Stadium, Charlotte, North Carolina
by Scott, NFL Handicapper, Predictem.com
Point Spread: ARI +3/CAR -3
Over/Under Total: 47
The Arizona Cardinals come to Charlotte to play the Carolina Panthers on Sunday in the NFC title game. The winner gets a spot in Super Bowl 50 so the stakes are high. This game features the top two seeds in the NFC, with the 2-seeded Cardinals coming to Bank of America Stadium to face the conference’s top seed in the Panthers. On Sunday, Carolina jumped out to a big lead over Seattle, holding on to win, 31-24. Arizona’s route to this spot was a bit more unconventional, relying on overtime dramatics to thwart the Green Bay Packers, 26-20, in one of the wildest postseason games ever.
The Panthers looked dynamite at home on Sunday, particularly early. A long Jonathan Stewart TD run and a Luke Kuechly interception return for a touchdown had Carolina up early, 14-0. By halftime, the rout was on, with the Panthers leading, 31-0. They obviously lost their sense of urgency, doing nothing for most of the second half, but even though Seattle drew within ten points of the lead with over 6 minutes left, they never looked the part of a potential winner. They cut the lead to 7 and with a minute left attempted an onside kick, which was recovered by Carolina. Cam Newton was efficient, Jonathan Stewart had a great game after missing some time, and the defense made a huge imprint on the game, with the defensive score being the deciding margin of the game.
Carolina has begun to forge a solid home-field advantage. Sunday represented their 12th straight win at home. They’ve been putting up a lot of points at home, as well, benefitting from a passionate home throng. They’ve been home now for a month and are dug in, ready to take on a tough visiting opponent. In their last 5 games, they’ve averaging nearly 40 points a game at Bank of America Stadium and they were the top-scoring offense in the NFL this season.
On Sunday, the Panthers had an efficient game from Cam Newton, who was a bit toned-down, though good on 16-for-22 passing. Newton got a big performance from Jonathan Stewart, while relying on the defense. But it is the growth on this side of the ball that has made Carolina a Super Bowl contender. They really had a renaissance season, led by Newton, who is among the leading MVP candidates. He works with one of the more productive tight ends in the biz with Greg Olsen, with Ted Ginn, Jericho Cotchery, and Devin Funchess rounding out the aerial attack. On paper, it doesn’t look all that formidable, but no team scored more points that the Panthers this season and they have been putting up some impressive point totals in recent weeks and doing it on a very consistent basis.
The Carolina defense is a pretty special group. First off, they are a punishing defense to play. Teams never seemed themselves the week after playing Carolina this season. And teams often get wore down in the second half in the face of all the heat the Panthers bring to the table. They can rush the heck out of the passer. They’re fierce against the run, bolstered by a nasty front and difference-making second level. Kuechly is all over the field, a guy who makes big plays and can singlehandedly shut down parts of the other team’s offense. Thomas Davis is an all-pro presence in the middle, with a secondary that makes a ton of plays with guys like Roman Harper, Josh Norman, and Kurt Coleman. Will Arizona be able to get rolling against this bunch at home?
Arizona is coming off a heart-stopping win on Saturday, one of the best games seen ever in the NFL playoffs. With under four minutes, the Cardinals took the lead when a ball ricocheted into the hands of Michael Floyd for a touchdown. A field goal then made it 20-13. Green Bay then completed one of the more improbable drives ever seen, with all the stars lining up right, culminating in a Hail Mary TD to Jeff Janis with time running out to send the game to overtime. Despite the heartbreaking nature of the game-tying touchdown, the Cardinals took the ball on the opening drive, gave it to Larry Fitzgerald, and the rest is history. A 75-yard play got them to the five, with Fitzgerald taking it in on a shuttle pass for the winning score. We’ll see if that ending put any extra wind in their sails heading into this week.
The Cardinals absolutely must be taken seriously. They’re a well-rounded team, good on both sides of the ball. Carson Palmer is also an MVP candidate, as his steady presence this season behind center took a good team and made them very good. Palmer has amazingly won 26 of his last 31 starts at quarterback. And it’s in spots like these where the class of players like Fitzgerald really pays off. Maybe getting the first playoff win of his career will give Palmer the little boost he needs. He has a lot of aerial weapons, with Floyd, Fitzgerald, and John Brown. But things get a little tougher in what is a tough road spot against a really good defense. The Cardinals’ run-game has stagnated a bit in recent weeks and watching them struggle at home against a so-so Green Bay run-defense makes one wonder what it’s going to look like on Sunday.
Let’s not lose sight of the Arizona defense, a group that has been integral to the success of this team. They didn’t have their best game in a lot of ways against the Packers last week, but this is a solid group in all phases. They can apply a robust rush on opposing passers, secure turnovers, and change the trajectory of a game. And they’re a group that is capable of playing over their head at times. Carolina may be at home and the league’s highest-scoring offense, but if the Arizona defense can play really well, they could have the Carolina offense in knots. And there have been spots this season when they were really good.
The Arizona offense hasn’t looked that great in their last two games, ending the year by scoring 6 against Seattle and then held to 10 points last week until late in the final quarter against Green Bay at home. They will need to find another gear for this game against this Carolina defense. And the last time they played this Carolina team, they lost 27-16 in last year’s wild card round of the playoffs. But Carson Palmer wasn’t in that game, so that result really doesn’t play a big role for the purposes of handicapping this game.
Sometimes, a team has a certain magic touch, whether it be a simple knack to win or just a certain indefinable quality that gives them an edge in critical situations. Arizona might be one of those teams. They’re not going to be easy to beat and I picture them giving the Panthers a good fight. I picture a game up for grabs at the end and it might be good to have the points. I’m taking Arizona.
Scott's Pick to Cover the Point Spread: I’m betting on the Arizona Cardinals plus 3 points.
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