The Carolina Panthers will host their first NFC Championship game in franchise history at Bank of America stadium in Charlotte Sunday at 6:40pm. Coming off the heels of a some what dominating performance at home against Seattle, the Panthers look loose and more ready than any other team I've seen step on the "lousy" grass at Bank of America.
A lot of talk has been made about blowing the big lead and playing too conservative the second half against Seattle. I could agree that late in the fourth quarter they could have gotten a little more aggressive maybe, but you can't take too many risks. If you're worried about that coming into this game against Arizona, I don't think you should be. This team knows this is the number one offense coming into Charlotte and I trust this staff to get that point across and prepare the team, as should you.
The biggest thing the Panthers have going for them this week is that Carson Palmer is not a mobile quarterback like Russell Wilson and will be one less thing they have to focus on. Palmer is the epitome of a pocket passer, get pressure and you can disrupt some of his timing. It would be big for the Panthers front four to get the same kind of pressure they had on Wilson last week to blow up the middle of the pocket with Kawann Short and Star Lotulelei.
The defense simply cannot allow Palmer a lot of consistent time to sit back and throw. This seems true with every team, but it is especially important with this top ranked passing attack with Palmer and his weapons, combined with the Panthers banged up secondary. Arizona's offensive line has been vulnerable as of late, look for McDermott to have a scheme to exploit that.
On the other side of the ball, the Panthers hold the number one scoring offense in the NFL and they will need every bit of it clicking this Sunday in what could be a possible shootout. Like last week, it will come down to Cam Newton and protecting the football. Arizona is a blitz heavy team running a 3-4, making it harder to read some of their blitzes. With those blitzes though, it can leave the second level open for the Panthers run game on the zone read option with Stewart and Newton. Another strong day running with Stewart would be nice to open up the passing lanes. I could see Cam Newton running the ball more this week and with more success against a blitz heavy team if he makes the right reads. Also, look for the read, run, or quick pass option that could keep Arizona's defense on their heels some.
These are the best two teams in the NFC Conference, and it should make for a good game. However, I think the Panthers have the slight edge playing at home and with the new cold elements that have surfaced this week.
Even without the elements factored in, I think the Panthers front four will be able to get after Carson Palmer who struggled against Green Bay last week. On the other side, the Cardinals defense seems to be missing Tyran Matthieu more than anyone would have expected. Shula and the coaching staff have done a great job all season of exposing good match ups for Panthers receivers. These things give the Panthers the edge to win for me and make it to Santa Clara for Super Bowl 50.
PREDICTION: Panthers- 27, Cardinals- 20.