The NFL Playoffs kick off on Saturday afternoon, when the Carolina Panthers host the Arizona Cardinals at Bank of America Stadium.
The Panthers became the fourth team ever to make football’s postseason with a losing record when they drubbed the Atlanta Falcons last Sunday to win the NFC South with a 7-8-1 record. The league’s postseason format rewards all division winners with a home playoff game, even if their record is worse than the wild card team they are facing. Because of this, the 11-5 Cardinals are in Charlotte instead of Phoenix.
Here are five things to watch going into Saturday’s showdown:
- The Cam Effect: A few weeks ago, many were wondering if Cam Newton would even be able to play again this season, let alone lead the Panthers to the playoffs. Newton was involved in a nasty two-car crash on December 9 where his truck landed on his side and, in his words, “Somebody is supposed to be dead.” He suffered two fractures in his lower back but missed just one game before collecting 264 all-purpose yards and two touchdowns (one passing, one rushing) in a victory over Cleveland two weeks later. The fact that Newton survived the accident and is able to continue playing football adds to the legend of “Super Cam.” This will be his second playoff appearance, and he is hoping for a better result than last year. In a 23-10 loss to Colin Kaepernick and San Francisco, he threw for 267 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions and Carolina was shut out in the second half. He had better receivers last year than he does this season, but he has two reliable targets in Greg Olsen and Kelvin Benjamin and can always use his legs to get out of trouble. Arizona is 29th in the league against the pass and has not been able to establish a major pass rush, so Newton and the passing game will have to come up big in order to win.
- Lindley gets the start for Cards: Injuries have decimated Arizona quarterbacks this season, and with Drew Stanton’s knee injury still keeping him out, Ryan Lindley will be the starter. He started the last two regular season games against the Seahawks and 49ers, losing both and throwing four interceptions to go along with a 58.6 passer rating. His performance hasn’t offered Cardinals fans much optimism, and the fact that he is going up against a defense that has allowed the fourth-fewest passing yards per game among playoff teams doesn’t help either. Lindley is going to have to have the game of his life on Saturday.
- Arizona has advantage in ball security…: The Cardinals have only had 17 giveaways this year, tied for fourth in the league, while the Panthers have turned the ball over 23 times. Those 23 turnovers include 11 fumbles, while the Cards have only lost five fumbles. If Arizona can win the turnover battle, they have a shot at overcoming their deficiencies under center.
- …And field position: Arizona punter Drew Butler has pinned the opposing team inside their own 20-yard line 34 times, tied for most in the NFL. It’s easy to overlook that stat, but the fact that opponents are starting many drives inside their own 20 helped contribute to Arizona allowing the fifth-fewest points in the league this year.
- Cotchery is the x-factor: Kelvin Benjamin and Greg Olsen may be Cam Newton’s two favorite targets, but the Cardinals’ defense cannot overlook Jerricho Cotchery. Cotchery has made 13 receptions for 118 yards and a touchdown in the past three games, establishing himself as a viable option for his star quarterback. Cotchery also has one thing Kelvin Benjamin doesn’t; playoff experience. The former Jet and Steeler has played in 10 playoff games in his career, catching 31 passes for 471 yards and four touchdowns in those games. The postseason is nothing new to the 32-year-old, which is a big intangible for the Panthers as he offers advice to their young receiving core.
- The Prediction: This is going to be a close contest, but Carolina will ride the momentum of a four-game winning streak and home field advantage to advance to the divisional round. 27-17 Panthers