We’re down to the final four in the NFL. Here’s a first look at the 2016 NFC championship game, which features the top-seeded Carolina Panthers (15-1) and the No. 2-seeded Arizona Cardinals (13-3), who will meet in Charlotte Sunday at 6:40 p.m. ET.
On paper, these are the two best teams in football: Nobody else in the NFL won more than 12 regular-season games, and they ranked first and second in football in terms of points scored and points differential. In both cases, though, Carolina finished in the top spot.
Missing pieces in the secondary: Both teams can light up the scoreboard and both have some major talent on defense, but they’re both a bit vulnerable on that side of the ball. The Panthers, who gave up 24 second-half points to the Seahawks, are without two of their top three cornerbacks in Bene Benwikere and Charles Tillman. The Cardinals, who gave up a pair of Hail Marys late against Green Bay, are without Pro Bowl-caliber defensive back Tyrann Mathieu.
MVP-caliber quarterbacks: Carolina’s Cam Newton will likely win MVP, but Arizona’s Carson Palmer led the league by a wide margin with an 8.7 yards-per-attempt average while posting the third-highest passer rating in football. He struggled a bit against the Packers but recovered to turn in some overtime magic. Meanwhile, Newton was lights-out in the first half against Seattle before struggling a bit late. You have to wonder if sluggish second halves will catch up with Newton and the Panthers.
Something’s gotta give: The Panthers are 21-2 since December of 2014, while the Cardinals are 26-5 with Palmer at quarterback since October of 2013.
Something’s gotta give again: The Panthers have now won 12 straight regular-season and playoff home games by an average margin of 12.7 points. But the Cardinals were the league’s best road team during the 2015 regular season, posting a 7-1 record and outscoring their opponents by an NFL-high 14.0 points per game.
Forget the last meeting: Yes, Carolina beat Arizona handily in last year’s wild-card playoffs, but without Palmer the Cardinals were as good as dead entering last January. Different story now. Last time a Palmer-led Cardinals team played Newton’s Panthers, Arizona won 22-6. However, that was way back in 2013 and Palmer still threw three interceptions that day.
It’s basically a toss-up: This is such an even matchup, but I can’t deny Carolina in what should be a close, exciting game at home. Panthers 27, Cardinals 24