Arizona Cardinals (10-7) at Carolina Panthers (12-4), Sat 8:15 p.m. ET (Fox)
Broadcast Team: Kenny Albert, Daryl Johnston, and Tony Siragusa (Field Reporter)
This maybe the most intriguing of the four rematches as the Arizona Cardinals return to the East Coast looking for their first win on this side of the country – Cardinals were 0-5 back East including shellackings by the Eagles, Patriots, and Jets (Combined score of 202 to 102 in their five losses). However the Cardinals come into Charlotte with a good feeling fueled by their close 27-23 loss to the Panthers in Week 8. In the Week 8 clash, the Cardinal led 10-3 at the half before two critical second-half turnovers were converted into 10 points by the Panthers. Even though they lost the Cardinals clearly believe after putting up 425 total yards including 381 passing yards by quarterback Kurt Warner that they have can beat the 10-point favorite Panthers.
Speaking of Warner, the former Super Bowl MVP has turned back the clock to his St. Louis Rams glory days passing for numbers of 401-598, 4598 yards (2nd in NFL), 30 TDs, and 14 INTs. Only the Saints had a more prolific passing offense than the Cardinals (292.1 yards a game), so the Panthers secondary led by corners Chris Gamble and Richard Marshall better be ready for a potential track meet. However the Cardinals clearly understand that in the playoffs balance is the key as former benchwarmer Edgerrin James -NFL’s 11th all-time leading rusher — has emerged to run for 173 yards in the Cardinals last two wins including 73 yards versus the Falcons last week. James and Warner will be looking for help from All-World receiver Larry Fitzgerald (96 receptions for 1431 yards and 12 TDs), but the former Pitt star will probably have to contend with double-teams as his partner Anquan Boldin is doubtful with a severely pulled hamstring.
The Panthers plain and simple want to pound the rock on offense and who could blame as an O-line led by first round draft pick Jeff Otah has blasted holes for the NFL’s best 1-2 backfield in my opinion. Carolina’s combination of running backs DeAngelo Williams (1,515 yards, 5.5 ypc, and a league leading 18 TDs) and rookie Jonathan Stewart (836 yards with rookie leading 10 TDs) is probably the NFL’s scariest tandem and the Cardinals led by Pro Bowl safety Adrian Wilson better summon the same kind of effort that they displayed last week against the Falcons – held the Dirty Birds in check to the tune of 60 yards. If the Cardinals do find a way to stop Williams and Stewart, then they will have to deal with veteran quarterback Jake Delhomme and his favorite target Steve Smith. The diminutive Smith (78 receptions for 1,421 yards and 6 TDs) maybe one of the NFL’s smaller receivers at 5’9, but he is one of my favorites due to his toughness, leadership, and uncanny ability to catch Delhomme’s rainbows in traffic. Plus don’t forget about veteran number two Muhsin Muhammad, who is great at moving the chains and in the red zone.
The key match-up to me will be Panthers Pro Bowl DE Julius Peppers — career high 14.5 sack for 3rd in the NFC-versus a suspect Cardinals offensive line led by LT Mike Gandy. The Panthers will also be getting DTs Damione Lewis and Maake Kemoeatu back from injury as the two massive men in the middle should also help in collapsing the pocket and keeping James in check.
LV‘s Pick: Even though this game has the makings for an offensive shootout, I believe the weather (expected to be cold and rainy) should be a huge factor in this game. In a warm weather setting or a dome, I might give the advantage to the Cardinals but this is not their dome in Phoenix they are playing in. The Panthers have won the past five meetings with Arizona dating to 2003. So with the elements factoring into the game, expect to see a lot of DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart as the Cardinals defense has had too many problems stopping teams this year (331.2 yards allowed per game). I also see Steve Smith hitting paydirt too as the Panthers defeat the Cardinals 24-14. At least the Cardinals will be able to point to great season where they hosted their first playoff game since 1947 and won the NFC West (first division title since 1975).