Arizona (14-3) at Carolina (16-1)
When: Sunday, January 24th 2016
Where: Bank of America Stadium, Charlotte, NC
Time: 6:40 ET | TV: FOX
The top two seeds in the NFC meet Sunday for the Conference Championship as the Carolina Panthers host the Arizona Cardinals. It will be the first time in NFL history that Heisman Trophy winning quarterbacks will meet in the postseason. Carolina has been led all year by probable NFL MVP Cam Newton and a solid defense. Newton threw for only 161 yards last week, but running back Jonathan Stewart did the heavy lifting rushing for 106 yards and a pair of touchdowns as the Panthers built a 31-0 halftime lead and held on to defeat Seattle 31-24. The win was Carolina’s 12th consecutive home victory dating back to last season and are 9-0 at Bank of America Stadium this year. Newton’s top target is tight end Greg Olsen who had his second consecutive 1,000 yard season and caught seven passes for 77 yards and a TD last week. The Panther’s offense led the league in points per game (31.2) and was second in rushing yards (142.6) thanks to the combination of Stewart (989 yards) and Newton (636). Cam also ran for 10 scores in the regular season – the most since his rookie campaign. Carolina’s defense led the NFL with a +20 turnover ratio which was six more than the next team (Kansas City). They sacked Russell Wilson five times last week, but defensive end Jared Allen fractured his foot in the game and is listed as doubtful for Sunday. Linebacker Luke Kuechly led the Panthers will 76 tackles this season despite missing three games early on with a concussion. He returned a 14-yard interception for a touchdown that put Carolina up 14-0 and put the Seahawks in an early hole four minutes into the game last week. The Panthers can become the ninth team in league history to reach the Super Bowl with one loss or less.
The Arizona Cardinals are looking to reach the Super Bowl for the second time in franchise history and hope to get a little revenge on Carolina in the process. The Cardinals were down to their third-string quarterback when they lost at Carolina a year ago 27-16 and set an NFL record-low with just 78 yards of total offense. Carson Palmer led the Arizona offense to 30.6 points a game and the top-ranked offense averaging 408.3 yards a game this season. He struggled in the season finale against Seattle and was ineffective in the first half against Green Bay last week, but threw for 275 second half yards to help the Cardinals reach the title game. Arizona survived an Aaron Rodgers miracle last week as the Packers tied the game up in the end, but the Cardinals won the coin toss and marched down for the winning touchdown. Larry Fitzgerald caught that score as one of his eight receptions to go along with 176 receiving yards. One reason the offense struggled a bit the last two games was the play of running back David Johnson, who was limited to just 35 yards on 15 carries last week. The Cardinals are 7-1 on the road this year including 6-2 against the spread. Arizona’s defense, which ranks 5th overall in yards allowed, have surrendered 56 points in the last two games. In the five previous contests, they allowed 17 or less four times. Part of the problem on defense is that they lost Pro-Bowler safety Tyrann Mathieu in Week 15. He had 80 tackles and five interceptions this season.
I liked Arizona all year, but the last few games have me concerned. They are still one of the best teams in football, but they’re going up against a team that has been dogged all season. If you go by public perception, you would think this Carolina team is the worst 15-1 team in league history. That’s just not the case. Look what they did to Seattle last week. Despite not having a top wide receiver, the offense still clicks. The defense is ferocious and Cam Newton is just one win away from his dream. I think Carolina’s defense and home field is the difference in this game.
Pick: Panthers -3