January 20, 2022

NFC Championship Prediction

5 min read

NFC Championship Prediction: Panthers to prevail in a track meet to Super Bowl 50

By The Rex Factor

I’ve hemmed and hawed all week about the second game on Sunday afternoon, the NFC Championship. Arizona boasts impressive credentials and has as many meaningful and statement-type victories as any team in the league this season. The Cardinals will visit Carolina, a team that has done little wrong in racking up 16 wins in 17 games.

My raw numbers and adjusted numbers after doing the work both spit out Carolina as a 3-point favorite, same as you’ll find at America’s Bookie, with the total being a tad higher than you see.

This will be the first time in NFL history that we get a playoff matchup featuring two former Heisman Trophy winners at quarterback. Cam Newton of the Panthers won the Heisman at Auburn, while Arizona’s Carson Palmer won it at Southern Cal.

Interestingly enough, it’s also the first time that three of the four teams left in the conference finals have a No. 1 draft choice as their starting quarterback, when including Denver’s Peyton Manning to the group. This is also the first time for Carolina to ever host an NFC title game and the first time for Arizona to ever play away from home in one.

As for recent series trends, the home team has won and covered the last four in this series.

Schematically, these teams are polar opposites on both sides of the ball, which should make for a very intriguing game.

Arizona’s offense is based on a vertical passing game, while Carolina likes to run the ball using a physical and diverse attack. On defense, the Cardinals are very aggressive and attack out of hybrid sets that come with exotic pressures and various coverage packages. The Panthers are a zone-based defense that stress fundamentals and limit mistakes, while also boasting All-Pro talent at all three levels.

When Arizona is on offense, the key will be whether the O-line can hold up so that Palmer has five options to throw to and plenty of time to do it. The Cardinal offense has an abundance of weapons and should be able to challenge the Panther secondary, which is probably the weakest link for either team in this game.

That’s because Bene Benwikere broke his leg in Week 14 and Charles Tillman tore his ACL in Week 17. The starters in their places are Robert McClain and Cortland Finnegan. McClain was cut before the start of the season, and Finnegan was sitting at home, unwanted by anyone, until he was signed on Dec. 15. The only two other active cornerbacks are Teddy Williams, a kick gunner who played just 50 snaps on defense all season, and Louis Young, an undrafted free agent that was promoted from the practice squad after Tillman’s injury.

The deep passing attack puts pressure on that line to provide a pocket for Palmer, who is no threat to run the ball when dropping back. Newton actually ran for more touchdowns and yards this season alone than Palmer has in his 13 seasons combined.

Carolina also boasts the league’s best duo of 3-down linebackers in Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis, Grade-A cerebral players that can cover sideline-to-sideline and overcome any physical deficiencies (of which there are few) with aptitude through the roof. The Cardinals will have some drives where they struggle to do anything, and I don’t expect much to happen for them on the ground today. That alone could be the difference.

On the other side, the Panthers could struggle themselves at times. Cornerback Patrick Peterson won’t need any help against the limited Carolina receivers, which will allow the Cardinals to put a safety in the box and focus on thwarting the run. The Cards also will be able to use more base fronts because the only player that will need extra attention is tight end Greg Olsen.

Arizona’s defense stopped opposing rushers for a loss or no gain on 27 percent of all carries, ranking second in the league. That defense also ranked second in two other analytic-based rushing stats so the Panthers might have to throw the ball a bit more out of the box than usual. That said, Carolina has run for at least 100 yards in 30 straight games, a remarkable stat in today’s NFL.

Arizona will be blitzing from the moment they get off the bus; that’s a modus operandi that you don’t change after playing 17 football games. And while teams blitzed Newton more often than any starting quarterback other than Cleveland’s Josh McCown, they were erring the whole while. Newton was actually better against the blitz! He completed just as many passes against five rushers than against four but threw them deeper and for more yardage. While his completion rate went down against six rushers, his average yards per catch was higher and he didn’t throw any interceptions.

There’s also a reasonable chance that Newton can pick up gobs of yardage on scrambles or busted plays. While the Cards have a fast defense, it’s also very smallish (inside linebacker Deone Bucannon was a former safety) and there is a chance he’ll break several tackles on various occasions.

A couple of other notes:

Special teams could well decide this one, and neither team has been very good in those aspects this season. Rate the Panthers with a marginal edge in the field goal kicking game.

Also, whichever team is ahead in the fourth quarter figures to find a way to win. Ron Rivera turned into “Riverboat Ron” in 2013, and the Panthers are 22-4-1 when protecting a one-score lead in the fourth quarter. Conversely, Bruce Arians is 31-1 in the same situation, with his only loss in that spot coming against the Rams in St. Louis in his first game as Cardinal coach in 2012.

The Panthers and Cardinals finished first and second in the league in scoring, with each scoring more than 30 points per game. Palmer and Arians both got the monkey off their backs last week by finally winning a playoff game and Palmer in particular figures to play more loose and better today. But Newton seemingly lives for these moments, dating back to his days where he won a junior college national championship at Blinn College in 2009 (and a top-level one the next year at Auburn). He gets an overaggressive defense and a home field advantage, to boot.

Prediction: Carolina 34, Arizona 27
Recommendation: OVER 47 for a medium to big play

The Rex Factor knows that football playoff time is the best time of the year to be a bettor and a bookmaker alike. He’s been following the BCS and the NFL Playoffs since the 1990s.

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