NFC Championship Preview: A Heavyweight Battle
After 17 weeks of regular season action and two playoff rounds, we're exactly where we thought we would be: the 14-3 Arizona Cardinals are taking on the 16-1 Carolina Panthers for the NFC title and a chance to go on to Super Bowl 50.
Okay, so maybe we didn't see this coming before the season started, but as clichÃ© as it sounds, it's why the game isn't played on paper.
So what's in store for the NFC Championship Game when these two teams take the field this weekend?
A Tale of Two Quarterbacks
Carson Palmer seemed to find the Fountain of Youth in Arizona this year, ending his 13th regular season in the league as the second-most efficient quarterback with at least 200 drop backs, according to our Net Expected Points (NEP) metric. Palmer will need to be in top form when the Cardinals travel to Bank of America Stadium to take on the league's second-ranked passing defense.
Cam Newton also faces a tall task, as he once again faces a top-10 ranked secondary for a second consecutive playoff game. No slouch himself, however, Newton ended the regular season as the eighth most efficient quarterback on a per drop back basis, despite the fact that, after losing Kelvin Benjamin to an offseason injury, his leading wideouts became Ted Ginn Jr. and tight end Greg Olsen.
Newton will likely make use of his legs to move the ball against Arizona's defense. Indeed, in Arizona's regular season finale, the Cardinals struggled to contain mobile quarterback Russell Wilson, leading to a 36-6 loss. Arguably a better runner than Wilson -- Newton's 0.35 Rushing NEP per attempt not only bests that of Wilson, who himself sits at a sterling 0.21 Rushing NEP per attempt average, but also leads all players in the league with at least 100 carries this season -- Newton's dual threat ability may give the Panthers an edge over the typically stout Cardinals defense.
Cardinals Wideouts vs. Panthers Secondary
The matchup between the Cardinals' wide receiver corps and the Panthers' defensive backs will be a test of strength versus strength.
The play of Larry Fitzgerald, John Brown, and Michael Floyd have turned the Cardinals into the top-ranked passing offense in the league according to our NEP metrics, with the trio combining for 3,067 receiving yards and 22 touchdowns on the season. And just last week, Fitzgerald dominated the Packers' number 10-ranked secondary, catching 8 of 12 targets for 176 yards and a touchdown.
But things only get tougher for this unit when they take on the Panthers' second-ranked passing defense this Sunday. With Fitzgerald lining up in the slot, expect Floyd to find himself as a resident of Josh Norman Island for most of this contest, shifting the focus once again to Fitzgerald and the speedster Brown.
If the Panthers roll extra attention Fitzgerald's way, Brown is more than capable of taking advantage of one-on-one coverage against cornerback Robert McClain. Brown finished this season as the ninth most efficient wideout with at least 75 looks, and his speed should allow him to continue the success he had last week in the playoffs, when he caught 5 of 9 targets for 82 yards.
If the Panthers hope to hold onto any type of lead they muster against the high-powered Arizona offense, they'll need Jonathan Stewart to repeat the type of performance he had against the Seahawks when he rushed for 106 yards and 2 touchdowns. But with Stewart dealing with an ankle injury and going up against the league's second-ranked rushing defense, all this is easier said than done.
While we've already discussed Newton's ability to scramble and how it might impact this game, look for Newton to find some success targeting tight end Greg Olsen in the passing game. The Cardinals have been just average against tight ends this season, surrendering 87 receptions for 878 yards and 6 touchdowns to the position this year, ranking 24th, 19th, and 14th in each category, respectively.
David Johnson may the biggest X-factor for the Cardinals' chances of winning this contest.
While he had a rather uninspiring career playoff debut against Green Bay -- rushing for just 35 yards on 15 carries against Green Bay -- look for the rookie tailback to shake off the postseason jitters and step up against Carolina's 11th-ranked rushing defense. Johnson returning to regular season form -- where he led all tailbacks with at least 100 carries in Rushing NEP per attempt -- will go a long way to the Cardinals' chances of playing their way into Santa Clara in two weeks.
The Cardinals and Panthers look to be in store for a very close matchup this Sunday, with both teams owning a top-seven offense and defense according to our NEP metrics.
Our projections agree with this sentiment, with numberFire Live predicting the Panthers to win this contest at a likelihood of just 59%.