And then there were four teams left. After weekend filled with exciting comebacks, tight finishes, and questions answered, we are down to the final game before Super Bowl 50: the championship game. In one match up, two old rivals are pitted against one another in what would more likely be their last duel. In the other, you see two former number one overall picks lead their teams into battle for a chance for to justify their draft slot.
Every year there’s one championship game which people will say that ‘the winner of this game will probably win the Super Bowl.’ While most viewers will be focusing on the AFC Championship Game (for obvious reasons), many are overlooking the NFC Championship game. A game which pits the two best teams not just in the NFC but the two best teams in the NFL in the Carolina Panthers and the Arizona Cardinals.
Sunday, Jan. 24
6:40 p.m. ET
Arizona Cardinals (13-3) at Carolina Panthers (15-1) (FOX)
Carolina leads the regular season series (9-5) while the postseason series is tied (1-1)
Ah yes. If Brady-Manning is a battle of the two of the greatest quarterbacks to ever play the game, then then Newton-Palmer match-up is a match-up between two former No. 1 overall picks (Palmer in ’03 and Newton in ’11). Not to mention that both quarterbacks are Heisman trophy winners (Palmer in ’02 with USC and Newton in ’10 with Auburn).
At just a quick glance, you would think that these two teams are the same. During the 2015 regular season, both the Panthers and the Cardinals were neck-and-neck with each other in many offensive categories. When it came to scoring, the Panthers were ranked first (31.3 ppg) while the Cardinals were right behind them in second (30.6 ppg). In time of possession, both teams were tied for third overall (32:03 mpg).
But then when you look more at each team’s statistics, you will see how they start to differ from one another. In total yards, Panthers were ranked eleventh (366.9 ypg) yet they ranked second in rushing offense (142.6 ypg) due to the running games of RB Johnathan Stewart (989 yds) and QB Cam Newton (636 yds). The Cardinals, on the other hand, were ranked first in total yards (408.3 ypg) while they had the second best passing attack this season (288.5 ypg through the air) due to QB Carson Palmer, who had career highs in passing yards (4,671), touchdown passes (35), passing yards per game (291.9), and QB rating (104.6).
Now let’s look at the two team’s defenses. Now here’s where things get interesting. When it comes to scoring defense, the Carolina Panthers are sixth overall (19.3 ppg.) Guess who is right behind them tied for seventh? You got it, the Arizona Cardinals (19.6 ppg). Total yards allowed? Cardinals are fifth overall (321.7 ypg) while the Panthers right behind at sixth overall (322.9 ypg). Rushing defense? Panthers are fourth overall (allowing 88.4 ypg) while Cardinals are sixth overall (allowing 91.3ypg). Passing defense? Cardinals are eighth overall (allowing 230.4 ypg) while Panthers are tenth overall (allowing 234.5). Not to mention that each defense can generate turnovers (15 fumble recoveries and 24 interceptions for the Carolina Panthers & 14 fumble recoveries and 19 interceptions for the Cardinals).
However there are three things that separate these two defenses. First are Carolina’s ability to get after the quarterback. (44.0 sacks for Carolina vs. 36 for Arizona) and also Carolina’s ability to play the pass (105 passes deflected vs. Arizona’s 88 passes deflected.) Arizona’s defense, however, has the threat to score on a turnover (6 defensive touchdowns vs. Carolina’s 4 defensive touchdowns).
What this game will come down to is which team will make that costly mistake, which team defense will get that bigtime stop against the opposing offensive juggernaut. People can try to push off and ignore this game and focus solely on the tantalizing AFC Championship game. But the winner of this game will also be the winner of Super Bowl 50.
Pick: Carolina Panthers
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