If you've been watching the non-stop coverage of the conference championship games this week, you'll have learned a lot of things but what sticks out to me is their general bias against the Carolina Panthers.
For one thing, all of Adam Schien's "buds" on Inside the NFL picked Arizona to win this weekend. They all touted the talent Arizona has on both sides of the ball and how much better their receivers are than ours, blah blah blah....well, the biggest thing I noticed is what they DON'T say.
Things like....how awful the right side of Arizona's offensive line is. The left side has guard Mike Iupati, whom they picked up via free agency this offseason, and he is generally thought of as one of the best. Okay, fine. The left tackle is Jared Veldheer. I understand he's above-average and getting better. Nice left side to keep Palmer's blind side protected as much as can be done. Look for Star Lotulelei to have a surprisingly impactful game Sunday, pushing through that center-right side of the line and holding up and not giving ground on running plays to his area.
But what about those other three? Center Lyle Sendlein, RG Ted Larsen, and RT Bobby Massie aren't exactly household names, and have been rated very low on the totem pole all season long. A well-oiled offensive line, like CAROLINA has, is carefully built and meshed together while the OC looks to call plays to the strengths of the offense.
This tells me several things: The Cards may have trouble running to the right side without pulling one or more of those two good players they have on the left side. Now I'm no "stat-head," but I don't recall many RBs getting 100 yards against the Panthers this season as the Panthers ranked #4 against the run during the season.
Arizona has the #2 passing offense, but Carolina owns the #2 rushing attack. All else being equal, the running game is more valuable in playoff contests because of the longer drives doing so generates. It wears down defenses and puts the running team at a distinct advantage in the time of possession battle.
Isn't that exactly what all the "experts" say on TV? Run and stop the run? That's what Carolina does best; yet, these "experts" all claim road-team Arizona should beat the top seed at Bank of America Stadium.
So What's the Big Surprise?
A lot has been made this week over the fact that defensive player of the year candidate CB Josh Norman doesn't "travel" to the slot, and that's where the Cards have been using Larry Fitzgerald from a lot this season.
I'm thinking the surprise could be that Josh stays on Fitz wherever he goes. That would do several things:
Firstly, it's highly improbable that the Cardinals have practiced much for this scenario, given history. That alone would make things confusing on offense for Arizona while they try to hit their still-good WRs on the outside in Michael Floyd and John Brown. Both can do damage, but Fitz is the future Hall of Famer. Fitz's one weakness plays to Josh Norman's weakness as well: they BOTH lack "elite" speed. We also know that when Palmer gets hit or flustered, he throws up some bad passes and I think he'll be pressured all day.
You know Fitzgerald has never been known as a burner, and Josh Norman looks like a 4.5-guy on the field (4.5 40-yard dash). He just doesn't have that extra gear to chase people down at top speed. If he were to cover Fitz the whole game, that would very likely throw off their offensive game plan and cause drives to stall.
That's why I think we may very well see Norman "travelling" to the slot, or wherever Larry Fitzgerald lines up. Take their best WR out of the game and force them to beat you with their WR2 and WR3 guys.
The Panthers are also a zone-defensive team, which means the safeties normally have their eyes on the quarterback instead of running with a TE or RB in man-coverage. The scheme itself is largely responsible for the Panthers' league-leading turnover margin and points off of turnovers.
The other thing in the Panthers' favor is that the Cardinals had their own defensive player of the year candidate in Tyrann Matheiu, but he's injured and won't play. So, the Cards' "Josh Norman" is out...not that our WRs are a prolific and dangerous group compared to that of the Cardinals, but we do have a couple of burners in Ted Ginn, Jr. and in Philly Brown. All it takes is one (or two or three, depending on drop-sixes) time for either of those guys to beat one of their other DBs to put six on the scoreboard.
That won't be easy, however, as Patrick Peterson is one of the best DBs in the NFL also. However, the Cards are likely worrying most about TE Greg Olsen, who led the NFL among TEs in receiving efficiency. Yep - even over Gronk.
Any other "Surprises" in store?
There well could be, but moving Josh around would seem to be the most obvious choice, at least as I see it. Carolina's offense is confusing to defend as it is uniquely crafted, and the misdirection will be hard enough for Arizona to solve. However, the Panthers get to play 11-on-11 instead of 10-on-11 due to Cam Newton's rushing ability and his continued success in doing so. I'd expect to see a new wrinkle or two - likely off of some well-established plays where the defense thinks they know what's coming, but the Panthers install a few brand-new plays to force the Cardinals to re-think what they're trying to do defensively...just enough to induce some uncertainty and "doubt," which will slow defenders down in and of itself. You're supposed to react, not to THINK, and if Mike Shula can force Arizona's defense to think, they'll be at a big disadvantage.
Since Carolina dominates Arizona in ground statistics, I'm not looking for Cam to have to "put the team on his shoulders" to win but rather on his legs. Jonathan Stewart should be available and with Cameron Artis-Payne, the team has a deep and healthy backfield when Tolbert's name is tossed in the group. He IS a Pro-Bowl fullback, after all.
I see this game as one where Carolina really sticks to their #KeepPounding mantra, both to wear down Arizona's defense especially for the second half, and to limit Carson Palmer's chances and possessions on offense. If Carolina can limit Arizona's possessions and Norman "roams" to cover Fitz, that might well be enough to do what you need to do to win the game...simply out-score the other team. Arizona's biggest wild card is their extremely shrewd no-nonsense coach, Bruce Arians, so it's possible he could be ready for anything. We'll see.
As such, I'm not looking for the 30+ points the "experts" all are talking about. They've been SO wrong SO many times this season it's a joke to even refer to them AS experts.
I'm glad I'm simply a slightly better-than-average informed Carolina fan and see through all the fluff. My game score prediction?
Carolina 23, Arizona 20
Enjoy the game and #KeepPounding!
And please follow me on Twitter @Ken_Dye