The Carolina Panthers looked ready to pound their way through the NFC and all the way to the Super Bowl in the first half of their playoff game against the Seattle Seahawks last week, smothering the Seahawks with their defense and running all over the place with their offense, taking a 31-0 lead into halftime. Just based on that information alone, you’d think that beating the Panthers—who are now 9-0 in Carolina this season when you include the playoffs—would be an insurmountable task for the Arizona Cardinals.
And it may be. But the Panthers showed some cracks in the armor in the second half, with the Seahawks outscoring Carolina 24-0 and getting within a touchdown with just a minute to go in the game. The Cardinals are a pretty decent team, as well, having gone 13-3 in the regular season and taking out the Green Bay Packers in overtime last week in what will probably be known for a long time as one of the best playoff games in recent memory.
Are there lessons that the Cardinals may have learned about how to beat the Panthers from that second half performance by Seattle? Do the Cardinals have what it takes to knock off the Super Bowl favorite? Here are a list of things the Cardinals need to do to take down the Panthers this weekend.
1. Don’t Turn the Ball Over
What makes the Panthers defense so good is, in large part, due to turnovers. During the regular season, nearly one in every five offensive drives against the Panthers defense ended in a turnover. That is great for several reasons, mainly in that you take away a scoring opportunity from the opposing team while frequently setting yourself up with great field position.
Russell Wilson’s first pass of the game against Carolina was intercepted and returned for a touchdown, which made the score 14-0 in favor of the Panthers at that time. He threw another interception two drives later, which set the Panthers up in field goal range. Considering that the Seahawks lost the game by just seven points, had they not coughed up the ball twice there’s a very real chance they could’ve won the game.
The same is true for the Cardinals. They were in the middle of the pack as far as turning the ball over, with 24 TOs during the season. But the Panthers defense lead the NFL in turnovers forced with 39 and they’ll be looking to take advantage of a few miscues to jump out to an early lead. If they can take care the ball and not allow the Panthers short-field situations on offense, they could get out to an early lead and put serious pressure on Carolina.
2. Run the Ball Effectively
A lot of those turnovers came on interceptions this year. The Panthers led the NFL with 24 interceptions while only allowing 21 passing touchdowns. They forced the most passing attempts and yet only allowed the 19th most passing yards. In summary, they’re really tough on opposing quarterbacks and pass-happy offenses.
But the running defense stats, while also good, aren’t nearly as great. They allowed 11 rushing touchdowns this year, which was only middle of the pack as far as rankings go. They also allowed 3.9 yards per carry, which is good for a top 10 defensive ranking but certainly doesn’t scream “invincible.” They only had five games where a team rushed for over 100 yards and they won every single one. But while the Panthers averaged a 12.0 point margin of victory on the season, that margin dropped to just 6.6 points in those five games.
The problem here for the Cardinals is that they have a depleted backfield and haven’t run the ball consistently well. Between their playoff victory over the Packers and their week 17 loss to the Seahawks, the Cardinals have combined to rush for 67 yards. David Johnson has been the featured running back for a good portion of the season, but he’s questionable to play this weekend with a toe injury. For the Cardinals to win, they probably need someone to have a big performance in the running game.
3. Control Cam Newton
If you thought the last one didn’t look likely, this one is a whole different level. Between rushing and passing touchdowns, Newton scored 45 times during the regular season. There were only two games this season where Newton was held without a passing touchdown—a 33-14 win over the Dallas Cowboys that saw the Panthers score 14 points on defense and a 20-13 loss to the Atlanta Falcons.
That loss to the Falcons also happens to be the only loss this season for the Panthers. How did they do it, other than not allowing Newton to throw a touchdown pass? They held him to short throws. The longest pass Newton completed on that day was 19 yards, and in total he had 143 yards passing on 17 completions—or about 8.4 yards per completion, which is considerably lower than his season average of 12.9 yards per completion.
The Cardinals defense allowed 10.7 yards per completion this season and, in general, were a pretty decent pass defense. They’re going to have to bring their ‘A’ game, which they did against the Packers last week. If you take out the 101 yards that Aaron Rodgers miraculously put up on just two passes with the game on the line, he only passed for 160 yards on 22 completions—which is about 7.2 yards per completion.
The Cardinals may be the underdog in this game, and for good reason. But there is a template for how they could knock off the heavily favored Panthers. The question for now is whether or not they have the ability to follow it.
Follow Ryan on Twitter @RyanDavisMLB.
Statistics courtesy of Pro-Football-Reference.com.