Arizona Cardinals at Carolina Panthers (-4.5, 39 o/u)
The Arizona Cardinals and Carolina Panthers kick-off this year’s postseason on Saturday (4:20 p.m. Eastern on ESPN) in a matchup of two teams headed in different directions.
The Carolina Panthers enter the postseason riding high. At 3-8-1 through 12 games, the Panthers had little hope to make the playoffs; but they finished the regular season with four straight victories, capped off by a blow-out of the Atlanta Falcons in the de facto division title game. Their 7-8-1 record proved enough to win the dismal NFC South.
Carolina is playing better in all phases of the game lately. Star quarterback Cam Newton looks as healthy as he’s been all season, and he’s aided by resurgent running back Jonathan Stewart and a new-found rushing attack.
The Panthers’ defense has also returned to its dominant form from last year, when it led the Panthers to a 12-4 record. Carolina has given up just 43 points in the last four games and returned two interceptions for touchdowns in the division decider against Atlanta. The Panthers actually came into that game as four-point dogs, but surrendered fewer points than the moderate spread, winning 34-3.
On the other hand, after starting 9-1, the Arizona Cardinals lost four of their last six. Arizona cycled through three starting quarterbacks on the year after veterans Carson Palmer and Drew Stanton went down with injuries. The team is holding out hope Stanton can play on Saturday, but the game will more likely fall on the shoulders of the inexperienced Ryan Lindley.
Regardless of who is under center, the Cardinals should be able to rely on their stout defense come Saturday, as they have done all season. Arizona’s run defense has been especially tough, giving up just 82 yards per game.
This game will be a defensive battle and as such, will be decided by turnovers and big plays. With Newton and an improved running game, Carolina seems more offensively adept for postseason play. But Arizona has a stronger offensive line and better playmakers on the outside, including veteran Larry Fitzgerald, who has put up dominant performances in his postseason career.
The Panthers are currently a 4.5-point favorite with the over/under at 39.
(Photo credit: Pantherfan11 [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.)