Arizona Cardinals at Carolina Panthers (-3.5, 48 o/u)
The two best teams in NFC will put it all on the line for a spot in Super Bowl 50 today when the Arizona Cardinals (14-3, 7-1 road) visit the Carolina Panthers (16-1, 9-0 home) at Bank of America Stadium (6:40 PM Eastern).
The Panthers and Cards were the best and most consistent teams in the NFC throughout the regular season and look fairly even on paper. They boast the first and second-best scoring offenses in the league (Carolina was first at 31.2 PPG; Arizona was second at 30.6 PPG) and both have top-ten defenses (Arizona surrendered 321.7 YPG, while Carolina gave up 322.9).
The Cards were expected to lay a beat down on the Packers last weekend, but looked shaky, especially QB Carson Palmer. Palmer threw for 349 yards, three touchdowns, and two interceptions in the 26-20 overtime win, but he looked nervous throughout, got a very lucky bounce on one of his TD passes, and should have been picked at least once more.
The questionable performance was unwelcome for the 13-year vet, who was just 0-2 in the playoffs for his career up until that point.
That said, Palmer got the job done in OT (connecting with Larry Fitzgerald on a 75-yard catch and run to set up the game-winning TD) and is doing his best to learn from his mistakes.
“As I haven’t been playing in these games, I’ve studied it and watched it from afar and gone through it mentally,” Palmer told the Associated Press. “[W]we’ve got a pretty good recipe that wins games and we’re going to stick with that recipe.”
Getting that first playoff win under his belt should help the QB be more relaxed in the championship game. Of course, he’ll be facing a Carolina defense that’s a lot more potent than the Packers’ unit.
The full might of the Panther D was on display in the first half of the team’s 31-24 win over Seattle. They picked off Russell Wilson twice (returning one for a TD) and shutout the Seahawks for the first 30 minutes, taking an insurmountable 31-0 lead into halftime.
The Panthers had a serious letdown in the second frame, though, allowing Seattle to mount a furious 24-point comeback. And that wasn’t the first (or second) time this season Carolina has almost let a game slip away. They blew a 17-point lead against the Indianapolis Colts (eventually winning in OT), allowed 23 unanswered to Green Bay, and let the Giants crawl back from a 28-point deficit. Yet, as coach Ron Rivera is quick to point out, the Panthers still won each of those games.
“I’ll be honest, I get it, I understand,” Rivera told the AP. “But, shoot, we won those football games and look at who we played against. Am I concerned? Yeah. But are these things correctable and fixable? Most certainly. Let’s stay focused on what we did — we won the football game.”
Today’s game is a rematch of a Wild Card matchup from last year when Carolina eliminated Arizona, 27-16. But not many people are emphasizing that fact since the Cardinals didn’t have Carson Palmer at the time due to an injury. There are reasons to like both teams, looking at the trends: the Cardinals are 6-2 ATS away from home on the year, including 4-1 in their last five, while the Panthers are a solid 6-2 ATS at home.
The problem for the Panthers is that their secondary is missing some key players (Charles Tillman and Bene Benwikere) and Seattle showed last week that they can be exploited on the backend. Given Arizona’s deep receiving corps, the Cards should be able to capitalize on Carolina’s only real weakness.
Pick: Cardinals +3.5.
(Photo credit: Greg Buch FFSwami.com (Flickr) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons. Photo has been cropped.)