By Shawn S. Lealos
The Carolina Panthers knew they would have a defensive battle with the Seattle Seahawks, but that is not how that game turned out. Carolina scored 31 points against a normally tough Seattle defense in the first half alone and then they gave up 24 points in the second half alone. It wasn’t what anyone expected from that game. Now, in the NFC Championship game, they face another tough defense, but the Arizona Cardinals are also capable of putting a lot of points up on the board. Here is a look at the Cardinals heading into the big game.
The Arizona Cardinals had the second best record in the NFL this year, second only to the Carolina Panthers, making this game almost more exciting than the eventual Super Bowl. Arizona actually had a chance for home field advantage heading into the final game of the season, and if Carolina had fallen in that final game, Arizona might have kept their starters in to fight for it. As is, the Cardinals rested their starters in the final game of the season and finished 13-3, with marquee wins over three NFC playoff teams in the Minnesota Vikings, Green Bay Packers, and Seattle Seahawks in the regular season. To make it to the NFC Championship game, they beat the Packers for a second time.
Arizona Cardinals on Offense
If not for Cam Newton, Carson Palmer could have won this year’s NFL MVP. He finished the season ranked third in passing yards behind only Drew Brees, Philip Rivers, and Tom Brady. It was Palmer’s fifth time to throw for over 4,000 yards in a season and he also had a career high 35 touchdown passes with only 11 interceptions. In last weekend’s playoff win over the Packers, he threw for 349 yards with three touchdowns and two interceptions.
The Cardinals started out the year with former 2,000-yard rusher Chris Johnson in their backfield, but his season ended when he ended up on the IR. As a result, Arizona has had to rely on rookie running back David Johnson, who ran for 581 yards in his rookie season, and an impressive 4.6 yards a carry. He isn’t a huge weapon in the offense, though, and has only one 100 yard game on the season. Against Green Bay, he carried the ball 15 times for only 35 yards.
The true weapons on this offense are Palmer’s targets in the passing game. Larry Fitzgerald had a huge career resurrection this season with 109 receptions for 1,215 yards and nine touchdowns. He was also the reason Arizona beat Green Bay, catching eight balls for 176 yards and a score. In two overtime plays, Fitzgerald caught a 75 yard catch and run and then a five yard touchdown pass to win the game for Arizona. Joining Fitzgerald in the receiver corps are names like John Brown and Michael Floyd, making this a very explosive and dangerous team.
Arizona Cardinals on Defense
In the past, the knock on the Cardinals was their defense. With Bruce Arians as their head coach, that all changed. Arians was a hugely popular coach when he was an assistant at the Indianapolis Colts and even led them to nine wins as an Interim coach when Chuck Pagano was diagnosed with leukemia. It earned Arians the job with Arizona and his defensive coordinator Todd Bowles did so well that it earned him a head coaching job with the New York Jets. With new coordinator James Bettcher, the Cardinals are still solid.
Arizona ranked fifth in the NFL in total defense, one spot ahead of the Carolina Panthers. They ranked eighth against the pass, giving up only 230 yards a game. They ranked sixth against the run, giving up only 91 yards a game. This is a team that can score a lot on offense, while limiting opposing offenses. Even in turnover ratio, where the Panthers led by a mile with a +20, the Cardinals were strong as well, ranked fourth with a +9. The Seattle Seahawks game was supposed to be a defensive struggle, but this one looks like it might be even tougher than that one.
Arizona Cardinals’ Players to Watch
Larry Fitzgerald: If there is one player on the Arizona Cardinals team that steps up in the postseason, it is wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald. Carson Palmer had a great season, but this was his first year to ever win a playoff game in three appearances. However, this is Fitzgerald’s fourth time to the playoffs where he has been part of five winning games out of eight total. In 2008, he was a monster in the playoffs, with 30 receptions in four games for 546 yards and seven touchdowns as the Cardinals went from the Wild Card to the Super Bowl. With eight catches for 176 yards already in one playoff game this year, he is well on his way to another legendary finish.
Deone Bucannon: While Patrick Peterson is a threat in the secondary, with eight passes defensed and two interceptions this season, it is Deone Bucannon who has the toughest job in this game. The safety led the team in tackles this season with 112 and also had three sacks, one interception, three passes defensed, and three forced fumbles with two recoveries. However, his main job might be to spy Cam Newton, who can do almost more damage running the ball than he can do throwing it. Bucannon will be tasked with stopping Newton, something few have been able to do.
This will be an amazing game. Both teams can score a lot of points and both teams have defenses that are capable of stopping their opponents. Interestingly, both teams almost blew their divisional round playoff games late. The Panthers almost blew a 31 point lead and only won by a touchdown while the Cardinals allowed Aaron Rodgers to throw a touchdown pass as time expired to send their game into overtime. Carolina is favored to win, but this might come down to the last play once again.
Shawn S. Lealos is a freelance writer who graduated from the University of Oklahoma in 2000 with a Bachelor’s Degree in Journalism. He writes for a variety of national publications and has over 15 years of sports journalism experience. Follow Shawn on Twitter @sslealos. aExaminer.com.