2016 NFL NFC Championship Game Picks & Predictions: Arizona @ Carolina Expert Picks: They aren’t exactly traditional powers, but after completing impressive regular seasons, the top-seeded Carolina Panthers (16-1) and No. 2 seed Arizona Cardinals (14-3) will meet in the NFC title game with a spot in Super Bowl 50. Both sides have been as impressive as their records suggest. Led by quarterback Cam Newton, linebacker Luke Kuechly and cornerback Josh Norman, the Panthers ranked first in points per game and sixth in points allowed. Meanwhile, the Cardinals ranked second in scoring and seventh in points allowed with quarterback Carson Palmer running a potent passing attack and cornerback Patrick Peterson headlining a play-making defense. The Panthers head into the matchup as 3-point favorites at home.
The Cardinals got all they could handle in the divisional round from Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers. The Packers converted a fourth and long on the final drive of the game, setting up a game-tying Hail Mary. However, the Cardinals responded as Larry Fitzgerald broke free for a huge gain and then delivered the game-winning score on the first possession of overtime.
For a moment, it looked like the Panthers would be cruising into the conference title game as they amassed a 31-0 lead over the two-time defending conference champion Seattle Seahawks in the divisional round. Seattle battled back, and in the end, Carolina had to recover on onside kick to escape with a 31-24 victory.
The Cardinals Win If:
For the Cardinals to win this game, protecting Palmer is a must. Plain and simple, Palmer is a top-five quarterback in the NFL when he has time to throw. Establishing a ground game with David Johnson will play a big role in keeping Palmer upright, and if the Cardinals can keep Carolina’s defense guessing, Palmer has the playmakers to put points on the board against any defense. Defensively, the Cardinals have to slow down the Panthers’ running game on the early downs, forcing Newton to have to rely on a suspect group of receivers. When the Cardinals force third and longs, they can’t let Newton keep drives alive with his legs. If this game becomes a battle of which quarterback can make more big throws, the Cardinals have a big edge.
The Panthers Win If:
If the Panthers are going to advance, they need to establish their ground game early. When Jonathan Stewart and Newton are moving the chains on the ground, it not only opens up big plays in the passing game, but it also allows Carolina’s talented defense to stay fresh. Yes, Newton is capable of making big plays on individual talent alone, but if the Cardinals have to focus on Carolina’s power ground attack, big-play opportunities will be plentiful. Defensively, the Panthers have to make Palmer uncomfortable. When pressured consistently, Palmer has been prone to making mistakes and missing throws. If given times, Arizona has too many quality receivers for any defense to contain. By controlling the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball and giving Newton some chances to work his magic, the Panthers should come out on top.
As impressive as Carolina’s defense has been over the course of the season, the unit has shown some cracks down the stretch against quality quarterbacks. The Panthers allowed 38 points to Drew Brees and the Saints, 35 points to Eli Manning and the Giants and 24 points to Russell Wilson and the Seahawks. The Cardinals’ passing attack is on par, if not better, so there is a good chance Palmer and company will be able to put points on the board, especially since the emergence of rookie David Johnson has given the offense even more balance. Meanwhile, Arizona linebacker Deone Bucannon should at least help the Cardinals limit Newton’s scrambling ability. Bucannon is a converted safety, and his abnormal speed for a linebacker makes him an excellent candidate to spy Newton. Expect a tight one, but look for the Cardinals to make a few more plays on offense.
Prediction: Arizona Cardinals (+3) Cover the Spread
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