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Panthers vs. Cardinals Wild Card Preview: Not Your Typical Playoff Teams

Although the matchup may not look great on paper, there are plenty of interesting aspects of Saturday's game between Carolina and Arizona.

This weekend, we get to see a pair of divisional foes battle for the third time of the season. We get to watch one of the best young quarterbacks in the game in Andrew Luck. And we get to see if Tony Romo can convert his career year into postseason success.

Then there's this game. A below-.500 team is facing a team whose quarterback had a 48.4 completion percentage in the regular season.

Yet, in a way, the matchup between the Carolina Panthers and the Arizona Cardinals may be the most intriguing of the bunch. Can a team with a top-tier defense overcome their offense's wretched luck with injuries? Can a team that was 3-8-1 at one point in the season ride its hot streak to the second round? I can get behind those storylines.

Let's take a peek at this game using numberFire's game projections page, which is available to all premium subscribers. It includes projections of everything from a team's final score to the number of first downs they will record. It's pretty much the dopest thing ever, and it can paint us a fairly complete picture of what to expect this week.

Can Lindley Get the Job Done?

I don't want to rag on Ryan Lindley because the dude is pretty much in the worst situation imaginable. It's not his fault that he has struggled -- he's a third-string quarterback. But we still have to look at what he has done to get a full grasp on this game. And, brudduh, it ain't been pretty.

Lindley's first two games this year with the Cardinals were what you might call sub-optimal. He completed 22 of 54 passes for 246 yards, which equates to 4.56 yards per attempt. No bueno.

The positive thing here is that Lindley pulled a complete 180 in Week 17 against San Francisco. Sure, he threw three picks, but his metrics were really not too bad.

Using numberFire's Net Expected Points (NEP) metric, we can see exactly how Lindley performed. This tracks the number of points a player provides to his team relative to an average player. Because passing is more efficient than rushing, an average quarterback typically will see a Passing NEP of about 42.

Last week, Lindley finished the contest with a Passing NEP of 6.14. This was after he entered the contest with a Passing NEP of -17.91 on the season. This wasn't a great performance, but it's certainly more than you should expect from a guy who's playing far out of his element.

This doesn't mean that this is the Lindley we will see on Saturday. This is especially true when you look at what the Panthers' defense has done recently.

Earlier this week, numberFire's Editor-in-Chief JJ Zachariason wrote about the team's defensive resurgence, helping propel them to the playoffs despite having only a 4.3 percent shot at the playoffs after Week 13. They're a completely different team now than the one that started the year so poorly.

Even if we include the early season struggles, the Panthers' defense is still one that has done well against the pass. They ranked eighth in the regular season in Adjusted Defensive Passing NEP per play, which is adjusted for strength of schedule. This doesn't bode well for Lindley and the Cardinals' passing attack.

Over their four-game winning streak, the Panthers allowed only three touchdown passes compared to five interceptions. They held divisional foes New Orleans and Atlanta to 10 and 3 points respectively in must-win games. They good.

numberFire's projections aren't exactly digging the Lindley vibe. He is slated for 190.61 yards passing on 34.17 attempts (5.58 yards per attempt) with a touchdown and 1.18 interceptions. That's not generally the line of a winning team's quarterback. Unless, of course, that team can pull a remarkable defensive performance.

Is Cam Newton Back?

It has been an interesting year for Cam Newton. The first 12 weeks were gross, but in the last three games he played, Super Cam was back.

In his first 405 drop backs, Newton had a Passing NEP of -1.87, meaning he was far worse than replacement level as a passer. When you add in his 18.04 Rushing NEP, he had accounted for only 16.17 points "above expectation" the entire year. This is for a guy who had finished sixth, eighth and ninth his first three years in the league respectively.

Things turned drastically in the team's 41-10 romp of New Orleans. Including that game (and omitting the Tampa Bay game he missed after the car accident), Newton had a Passing NEP of 20.27 in his 82 drop backs. This gave him a Passing NEP per drop back of 0.25, which is more than two times as large as his career high the previous three seasons (0.12 in 2012).

Cam's rushing prowess returned those three games, too. He doubled his Rushing NEP by posting a 20.70 mark over 28 carries. This gives him a Rushing NEP per play over that span of 0.74. The league leader in that category this year among players with at least 50 carries was Russell Wilson at 0.62. Basically, Cam was one of the most valuable quarterbacks in the league in the final quarter of the season, even after missing one of those contests.

A revived Cam Newton isn't just a problem for the Cardinals. That would be a problem for any team in the Panthers' path. Yeah, they finished the season 7-8-1, but they're also riding a four-game win streak. The team of this stretch is far different than the one the first 75 percent of the season, and much of that is thanks to the man wearing No. 1.

How Can the Cardinals Keep it Close?

Vegas clearly thinks this is Carolina's game to lose with a line of Panthers -6.5. So what do the Cardinals need to do to prove that wrong?

Thankfully, because these game projections are stupidly cool, we can look at similar matchups from past seasons to get a blueprint for victory. To get the strongest predictors, the computers look for games that featured two similar teams to the ones we will see Saturday and then shows what happened in those games.

The top game for this matchup takes us back to December of 2003 when the Miami Dolphins cruised up to Buffalo and defeated the Bills, 20-3. In this instance, the Dolphins represent the Cardinals and the Bills are the Panthers.

Something that clearly helped the Dolphins in this game was that there were 20 mile-per-hour winds. For this reason, the Dolphins fed Ricky Williams 29 times and only had Jay Fiedler throw it on 17 occasions.

As of Thursday night, there was a 70 percent chance of rain for Saturday in Charlotte. While the Cardinals don't have a Ricky Williams to lean on, this would help make up the difference in quarterback play between the two teams.

Even if there are no issues with the weather, the Cardinals need to do whatever they can to minimize the opportunities the offense has to make mistakes. Miami won the turnover battle in that game by turning it over only twice compared to four times for the Bills.

The issue here would be if Carolina were to get an early lead. Good luck mounting a comeback in that situation with how Carolina's defense has played. So, they essentially need to play well. Brilliant game plan. We should send this to Bruce Arians.

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