Where: Bank of America Stadium, Charlotte, North Carolina
The Carolina Panthers are perfect at home this season and hope to ride that advantage to the second Super Bowl appearance in franchise history when they host the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday night in a matchup of the top two seeds in the NFC. The Panthers rolled to the best record in the league behind an unblemished home record that remained intact with last weekend’s 31-24 victory over Seattle.
“They say to get something that you’ve never had, you have to do something you’ve never done,” Carolina quarterback Cam Newton said. “For us, we’ve never had that vibe in the streets of Charlotte and I expect nothing less than what we saw on Sunday.” The No. 2-seeded Cardinals also are seeking to reach their second Super Bowl and will have a bit of added motivation against the Panthers. Playing with their third-string quarterback, Arizona dropped a 27-16 decision at Carolina a year ago and was held to an NFL playoff record-low 78 yards. The Cardinals, who outlasted Green Bay 26-20 in overtime last week, boast the league’s No. 2 scoring offense at 30.6 points per game – behind only the Panthers (31.3).
ABOUT THE CARDINALS (14-3): Arizona’s high-powered offense has stalled of late, managing only six points in a loss to Seattle in the regular-season finale and 10 through three quarters in last week’s matchup versus Green Bay. Quarterback Carson Palmer admitted to being “tentative” in the first half against Green Bay before throwing for 275 of his 349 yards after halftime. Larry Fitzgerald had eight receptions for 176 yards and the winning touchdown, but rookie running back David Johnson struggled for the second straight game as he was limited to 35 yards on 15 carries. Arizona’s defense sacked Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers eight times in Week 16 but got to him only once last weekend.
ABOUT THE PANTHERS (16-1): Carolina delivered an early knockout punch to the Seahawks, bolting to a 31-0 halftime lead before holding off a late comeback for its 12th straight home victory. Jonathan Stewart returned from a three-game injury absence to rush for 106 yards and a pair of touchdowns, alleviating the pressure on Newton, who threw for only 161 yards and a score. Tight end Greg Olsen is the top target of Newton, going over 1,000 yards in each of the last two seasons while hauling in seven passes for 77 yards and a TD against Seattle. Carolina’s defense dominated the Seahawks up front and recorded five sacks, but defensive end Jared Allen may be unavailable due to a fractured foot.
1. The game marks the first time Heisman Trophy-winning quarterbacks will start against each other in the postseason.
2. Arizona is 7-1 away from home and has won five straight road games.
3. The Panthers are bidding to become the ninth team in league history to reach the Super Bowl with one loss or less.
LINE: Panthers -3
PREDICTION: Panthers 26, Cardinals 23