Pick Panthers & 'Under' Against Cardinals For Super Bowl Spot

Matthew Jordan

Wednesday, January 20, 2016 12:49 PM GMT

Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2016 12:49 PM GMT

It's a chalk NFC Championship Game on Sunday evening in Charlotte, N.C., as top-seeded Carolina hosts No. 2 Arizona with both franchises looking for their first Super Bowl title. 

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NFL Picks: Carolina -3 & Under 47.5
Best Line Offered: at 5Dimes

 

Game Prologue
First off, I understand that the NFL rotates which network gets the coveted late slot on Championship Sunday and that CBS had it last year. But wouldn't it make much more sense to start the AFC title game between the Patriots and Broncos in Denver (Mountain Time Zone) at 6:40 p.m. ET and the Cardinals-Panthers at 3:05 p.m. ET instead of the other way around?

With all due respect to the Patriots and Broncos, the Cardinals and Panthers have been the NFL's two best teams all season. Carolina led the league with 15 wins and was a perfect 8-0 at home in the regular season. Arizona was second with 13 wins and had a 7-1 road record, tying Carolina for the best away mark in the NFL. Fox TV probably would have preferred a Seattle-Green Bay rematch this week for the NFC crown from a ratings perspective, but these are the two correct participants.

At Bovada, Carolina is a +200 second-favorite on NFL odds to win Super Bowl 50 and Arizona is third at +375. New England leads at +190. For the NFC, the Panthers are -170 and Cardinals +140.

These teams met in the wild-card round last year in Charlotte after the Panthers took the NFC South with a 7-8-1 record. Arizona had to play on the road with an 11-5 record because it finished second in the NFC West and was a wild-card team. Carolina won the game 27-16. Cam Newton threw for 198 yards and two scores, while Jonathan Stewart rushed for 123 yards and a TD. But the real story was the inept Arizona offense, which managed 78 yards, the fewest ever in an NFL playoff game, and turned it over three times. I take very little from that because the Cards were using third-string QB Ryan Lindley back then and he was horrific, throwing for 82 yards on 28 attempts, getting picked off twice and sacked four times. Obviously the Cardinals are a much different team with a healthy Carson Palmer.

 

Breaking It Down
Carolina beat Seattle 31-24 last week, jumping to a 31-0 halftime lead and hanging on for dear life. If you want to criticize the Panthers for anything this season, it has been taking their foot off the gas with big leads and turning comfortable wins into close calls. It also happened in the regular season against the Colts, Packers and Giants. Newton was 16-for-22 for 161 yards and a TD against Seattle and Jonathan Stewart rushed 19 times for 106 yards and two scores, the first 100-yard rusher vs. the Seahawks in 27 games.

Stewart did suffer a minor ankle injury in the game but he'll be fine to play  here. However, defensive end Jared Allen, acquired during the season from Chicago, fractured his foot in the game and is not expected to play Sunday. Second-year defensive end Kony Ealy likely would start at right end if Allen can't play. Pass rush specialist Mario Addison would see more snaps. Allen is the NFL's career sacks leader but well past his prime. He had 27 tackles and two sacks in 12 regular-season games with the Panthers.

Arizona escaped last Saturday night in an instant classic against Green Bay, winning 26-20 in overtime. The Packers had no right getting it to OT, with Aaron Rodgers converting a mini-Hail Mary on fourth-and-long and then an incredible 41-yard Hail Mary TD with no time left. Instead of possibly going for two points and the win, Green Bay coach Mike McCarthy opted for the Mason Crosby extra point and overtime. It didn't work as the Cardinals took all of three plays after winning the toss to score a touchdown and end it. Larry Fitzgerald capped a huge night with a five-yard shuffle pass TD from Palmer for the win. A Fitzgerald 75-yard catch-and-run two plays before set that up. He was a monster in the game with eight catches for 176 yards and that score.

If you want to nitpick the Cardinals, Palmer was very shaky despite putting up 349 yards passing and three TDs. He had two interceptions and probably could have/should have had at least two more. He was not very accurate much of the night and often under pressure. Palmer also was very shaky in the regular-season finale loss to Seattle. The Arizona running game also has done little the past two games.

While the Cardinals had the No. 1 total and No. 2 scoring offense (30.6 ppg) in the NFL during the season, the Panthers were No. 6 in total defense, No. 6 in scoring and No. 4 against the rush. They also have maybe the NFL's best cornerback this season in Josh Norman, who probably gets the coverage on Fitzgerald.

Believe it or not, this is the first time ever in the NFL playoffs that Heisman Trophy winning QBs have faced off. That seems impossible, but it's true. Palmer won it in 2002 at USC and Newton in 2010 at Auburn. Both were No. 1 overall picks.

 

Final Analysis
In many statistical categories, the Cardinals were better on the road than at home this season. But this is still a warm weather/dome team and it will be chilly on Sunday night in Charlotte. That benefits the more physical, grind-it-out Panthers, who also had the No. 1 scoring offense in the league. Give the points, go 'under' the total as your NFL picks. Arizona is 1-6 ATS in its past six vs. teams with a winning record. Carolina is 9-3 ATS in its past 12 vs. the NFC. The 'under' is 6-1 in Arizona's past seven overall. 

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