Everything you need to know for Cardinals-Panthers
For much of the season, the general-consensus two best teams in the NFC have been the Carolina Panthers and the Arizona Cardinals. That proved to be correct in the divisional rounds of the postseason, as the pair of teams won their playoff games this past weekend and will now compete in the NFC Championship.
The Cardinals played one of the wildest playoff games in recent memory, full of spectacular moments and head-scratching blunders. There were huge plays negated by unnecessary penalties, dropped interceptions, tipped passes for touchdowns, and one of the greatest Hail Mary throws you will ever see from Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers. When all was said and done, it was the Cardinals who overcame their inconsistent night by riding Larry Fitzgerald to a 26-20 overtime victory over Green Bay.
The Panthers started their game at a furious pace, jumping out to a 31-0 halftime lead, and seemingly punched their ticket to the NFC Championship game. But the Seattle Seahawks had other ideas, storming back to get within a score with a minute left. But an onside-kick attempt thwarted by Carolina’s Thomas Davis ended the comeback and the Panthers were victorious, 31-24.
With these two teams finally set to duke it out in Carolina with a trip to Super Bowl 50 on the line, let’s take a look at both squads from a PFF perspective.
Larry Legend. No, not Bird. It was Fitzgerald (91.8 PFF season grade, on a 0-100 scale), clocking in an unforgettable playoff performance for the ages. The 32-year-old finished with the second-highest receiving grade among all receivers this weekend. His eight catches on 12 targets for 176 yards and a touchdown included the now iconic 75-yard catch and run in overtime, saving Arizona’s season. Fitzgerald isn’t alone, though. The Cardinals also got positively-graded performances from their two other stud receivers, Michael Floyd (83.6) and John Brown (83.0). The trio can be a nightmare to contain.
The Cardinals’ run defense came up strong on Saturday night, despite what the stats indicate. If you take away Eddie Lacy’s big 61-yard rumble, Packers gained just 53 yards on 19 carries. To nobody’s surprise, they were led by defensive tackle Calais Campbell (87.9), who had a run stop and was disruptive all game long. Arizona surprisingly saw a big effort from inside linebacker Deone Bucannon (74.6), who’s been an average run defender all season long, but finished with four solo stops on Saturday.
The rushing offense was invisible for the Cardinals on Saturday night, against a Packers’ run defense that hadn’t been very strong. They ran the ball just 18 times, and gained a measly 38 yards. David Johnson (75.7) gained just 25 yards after contact, and forced only two missed tackles. The offensive line, a strong run-blocking unit all season, played just average with the exception of center Lyle Sendlein (49.0). Arizona’s running backs have had trouble all year creating yards without offensive line help, and that problem reared its ugly head again.
Arizona’s defense was unable to generate much pressure, something they’ve struggled with much of the season. Rodgers felt pressure on 36 percent of his dropbacks, and the Cardinals finished with just one sack and one hit. Defensive end Frostee Rucker (66.8) had a particularly tough time, rushing the passer 28 times and recording just one QB hurry. Campbell, for all his run-defense dominance, did not find the same success rushing the quarterback. He generated just three hurries in 42 pass rushes. Defensive end Ed Stinson (59.8) came on as a pass-rush specialist, but didn’t record a single pressure in 23 tries.
WR Larry Fitzgerald (91.8): The Cardinals have managed to turn back the clock on Fitzgerald all season, and he did not disappoint against Green Bay. He’s our fifth-highest-graded receiver and averaged 2.19 yards per route run this season, a top-10 mark. On Saturday, that number jumped to 4.00, the third-highest among receivers this weekend.
CB Patrick Peterson (86.8): It was up to Peterson to continue playing lights out to help soften the loss of his elite teammate, Tyrann Mathieu. Peterson has done just that, and capped it off with a fantastic game against the Packers. He allowed just two catches on four targets – one of them was the somewhat fluky Hail Mary completion to end the game. The dominant performance comes as no surprise, given that Peterson led the league in the regular season with 19.5 coverage snaps per reception.
The Cam Newton-to-Greg Olsen connection was the key difference-maker in Carolina’s win over Seattle, much as it has been all season. While Newton (87.0) didn’t need to do much, he still had a positively graded game. He had some beautiful passes (including the touchdown to Olsen) mixed in with some off-target ones. But it was Olsen (84.3) that stole the show. He caught all six throws tossed his way for 77 yards and a touchdown. Even more importantly, all six catches went for first downs, which included two third-down catches in the fourth quarter that allowed the Panthers to keep running the clock and hold on for the win.
The Panthers pass rush had a big-time game against the Seahawks — one of the key factors that led to their victory. To nobody’s surprise, they were led by defensive tackle Kawaan Short (91.3), who had a sack, two hits and four hurries, resulting in the team’s highest pass-rush grade of the game. Defensive end Jared Allen (74.9) chipped in with three hits and four hurries, but he’ll likely miss the rest of the playoffs with a fractured foot. Overall, the Panthers defense had 10 different players record a pressure, and finished with five sacks, eight hits and 14 hurries.
The Panthers rushing attack left a lot to be desired on Sunday afternoon. Despite opening the game with a 59-yard run by Jonathan Stewart (83.5), the Panthers failed to mount much of a rushing attack from that point on, gaining just 81 yards on the 36 designed runs that followed. Stewart didn’t force a single missed tackle, and averaged only 1.89 yards after contact per rush. Newton did next to nothing, gaining just 10 yards on eight carries. Carolina’s lack of rushing success was the biggest reason that Seattle was able to fight back into the game in the second half.
The Panthers secondary had a tough time in coverage on Sunday, something fairly out-of-the-norm for the unit. The Seahawks attacked cornerback Robert McClain (45.8) to the tune of 14 targets. He allowed seven receptions for 63 yards and a touchdown, but was cleanly beat on three of those misses, including one that would’ve been a touchdown. All-Pro cornerback Josh Norman (83.0) didn’t have his best game, either, allowing all five targets he saw to be completed for 57 yards and a touchdown. But nobody struggled as much as safety Kurt Coleman (80.3), who allowed 6 of 7 for 93 yards and a touchdown in primary coverage, and finished with a team low -4.2 coverage grade.
QB Cam Newton (87.0): The Panthers’ offense still lives and dies with Newton, relying on his quarterbacking play more than possibly any team. Nobody contributed more touchdowns this season than Newton’s 45 (35 passing, 10 rushing). Newton is very efficient on deep throws, as he is accurate on 47.9 percent of them (fourth-highest rate in the league). And he brings a running dimension from the position that no other quarterback in the league can match.
ILB Luke Kuechly (99.9): Kuechly is a phenomenal run defender, grading out at 97.9 against the run, highest among inside linebackers. That’s in part to his 14.0 percent run-stop percentage, which ranked second among ILBs. But it’s his coverage that really separates him as the best in the league, where his grade of 99.3 is far and away the best among inside linebackers. On Sunday, he had the best coverage grade on Carolina’s defense at +4.1, thanks to his pick-six as well as a great pass breakup that prevented a big Seattle gain to Doug Baldwin.
Matchups to watch
LG Andrew Norwell (87.5) versus DE Calais Campbell (87.9): The trench battle between these two top players is going to be a dandy to watch. Campbell is one of the best run-stopping interior defenders in the league, grading out at 88.4 thanks to an 11.5 percent run-stop percentage, third-best at his position. Norwell grades out as our sixth-best guard, and he’s especially strong against the run (88.3 run-blocking grade). Norwell was effective against the Seahawks, grading out at +1.8 in the game.
LG Mike Iupati (79.6) versus Kawann Short (90.3): Short is one of the more complete interior defenders in the NFL. His 87.7 run defense grade is near elite, and his pass-rushing is phenomenal (90.1). He had 68 total pressures this season, and a fourth-best 11.1 pass-rushing productivity. Iupati is our second-highest-graded run-blocking guard at 92.1. But his pass-blocking grade of 55.4 ranks 47th. He struggled against the Packers on Saturday night, allowing three pressures that helped lead to a team-worst -2.9 pass-blocking grade.
Paths to victory
Arizona can win: If Palmer shakes off a rough game last week and takes advantage of a Panthers secondary that has struggled at times in recent weeks. (Just ask Seattle.) And if Arizona’s secondary can keep the Panthers receivers covered for a little longer, it will allow their struggling pass rush to find its mark.
Carolina can win: If the Panthers can establish the run game early and allow Newton to work off the play-action to take some of the pressure off of his receivers, they’ll be able to use the entire field. And if the Panthers pass rush can get to Palmer early, just like they did against Seattle, it will throw off the timing of Arizona’s passing game and lessen the team’s biggest strength.