Is John Brown the Key to an NFC Championship Win for Arizona?
There is no doubt the Arizona Cardinals field one of the strongest wide receiver groups of any NFL team.
The Cardinals field the number-one Adjusted Passing Net Expected Points (NEP) and number-one overall Adjusted NEP in the league; NEP, by the way, compares a player or team's performance to expectation level.
Their passing attack has given defenses trouble all season, but Sunday's NFC Championship game will be one of their biggest tests yet.
Facing the team with the second best Adjusted Defensive Passing Net Expected Points and second best defense overall based on our metrics in Carolina on, the Cardinals’ offense will have to find any weakness in the defense that they can.
The three wide receivers for Arizona will each have to turn in strong performances to keep the offense moving.
Passing Game Trifecta
Each wide receiver has had his moment this season, posting strong statistical performances at different times of the year.
There’s little doubt Fitzgerald has been the most reliable of the trio, putting in his best yardage total in four seasons along with the most catches he’s had in a season since 2007. His performance Saturday night against Green Bay reminded fans and opponents of the elite receiver he once was. Fitzgerald’s 75-yard reception in overtime propelled Arizona to a victory and ensured Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers would not even touch the football in overtime. He isn't the fastest guy on the field, but his consistency and strength make him difficult to defend.
Michael Floyd has always had the physical gifts but seemed to come up short when the team needed him most or expectations were high. This season appeared to be the same for Floyd as he battled injury early on and failed to reach 60 yards receiving in any of the team’s first seven games. Then, Floyd came on strong in the second half of the season, finishing the year with over 100 receiving yards in five of the final eight games.
This brings us to the smallest receiver of the three and speedster in John Brown. Although he doesn’t have the Hall of Fame career like Larry Fitzgerald or the first-round draft pick pedigree of Michael Floyd, Brown has been a vital cog in Arizona’s offense.
In his second NFL season, Brown has proven to be one of the fastest receivers in the game. Almost weekly during the regular season, Brown would draw a long pass interference play or two on the defense, helping set up a score for the offense. Because of this, Brown’s impact isn’t always seen in the stat sheet, although his final season totals were strong.
Brown concluded his second season with 7 touchdowns and his first 1,000 receiving yard season. Injuries had an impact on Brown's season totals, too. Plagued by hamstring injuries throughout parts of the season, Brown saw more targets go Floyd’s way as his strong second half play began.
Delving deeper into the numbers is where Brown’s impact can really be seen.
Out of 73 players with 50 catches or more on the season, Brown ranked 11th, with a Reception NEP per target of 0.84. This placed him three spots behind Floyd, as both were extremely productive while both being outside the top 40 in targets.
And, again, even when he isn't catching the ball, he made an impact this year. His Target NEP -- the expected points gained on all plays that resulted in targets his way -- of 48.29 ranked 17th among 48 receivers with at least 80 targets. On a per-target basis, though, his 0.48 Target NEP ranked ninth.
Fitzgerald also owned a Target NEP per target of 0.48, but it ranked just a tad above Brown at eighth. Floyd? His 0.53 ranked fifth, giving Arizona three of the nine most efficient receivers in terms of being targeted, a testament to both the receivers and Palmer.
On Sunday, Brown caught 5 of 9 targets and finished with 82 yards against Green Bay. After a quiet end to the season, this was a strong start for Brown in the playoffs. The Cardinals will need Brown to display his deep threat ability against Carolina.
Where’s Josh Norman?
Cornerback Josh Norman has been a big reason why the Panthers’ pass defense has been so tough on opposing offenses this season. While it will be no easy feat for the Cardinals, the pieces are in place to have success through the air.
Based on how both teams line up on offense and defense, it is likely Norman, who plays almost exclusively on the outside, will square off against Floyd more often than Brown or Fitzgerald.
Brown should have chances to burn McClain on deep balls. Expect for Palmer to look to Brown when the opportunities are there, as this matchup could be one of the X-factors in the game. McClain is one of the weak spots of Carolina's defense.
If Brown can take advantage of his matchup with McClain, it should open up other things for the offense.
Sunday’s NFC Championship game will feature the two best teams in the NFL based on our nERD metrics. With both teams fielding strong defenses and offenses, look for both coaches to look for whatever matchups they can exploit.
Don’t expect Bruce Arians to change his passing ways in the NFC Championship game. All season, Arizona's pass catchers have come up big, and to win Sunday, they will have to continue their production.
Brown should prove to be a difference maker on Sunday if he gets enough targets his way. His penchant for drawing defensive pass interference penalties on defenders and deep threat ability should be on display.
For the Cardinals to reach the Super Bowl, Palmer will have to be on point, and John Brown could be the guy that helps make his job easier.
Trusting in Brown this Sunday could be the key to Arizona’s second Super Bowl trip.