The Carolina Panthers qualified for the playoffs by winning the NFC South division, despite being only the second team in NFL history to enter the playoffs with a losing record. Still, the Panthers will look to become the second team with a losing record to notch a playoff win. Only a month ago, Carolina looked dead in the water with a 3-8-1 record. Now, however, the Panthers are a threat to win the Wild Card game and advance, as they are one of the hottest teams in the league, having won their last four games. They also have home field advantage, which could be key.
Carolina won it’s second consecutive NFC South title with a solid effort from a dangerous and unpredictable offense featuring star quarterback Cam Newton, who poses a threat as a mobile quarterback that can also strike with his arm. However, the real strength of this Carolina team has been on the other side of the ball. The defense is the main reason that the Panthers won the NFC South, and will now look to become the second team with a losing regular season record to notch a playoff win.
Sean McDermott, the defensive coordinator for the Panthers, deflected criticism of the defense early in the season, saying that it was too early to judge them. Many detractors were critical, and seemed to believe that this was just a cop out. Indeed, however, Carolina’s defense stepped up in a big way as the season wore on. Despite a poor start where the Panther defense looked like one of the weakest in the league, they returned to top form later in the season, helping the team regain traction and, ultimately, return to the playoffs as division champions for a second straight season. The Panthers secondary took it up another notch in the final four games of the regular season, limiting opposing quarterbacks to an average rating of 22.2, and only given up 43 points overall during that stretch. Only the Seahawks defense looked more impressive towards the end of the season.
These two teams may be heading in opposite directions. While the Panthers seem to be surging, the Cardinals appear to be sinking. After taking the NFL by storm early, and enjoying a league best 9-1 record at midseason that saw them take a seemingly insurmountable three-game lead in the NFC West, the Cardinals began to struggle, losing four of their last six games, including both meetings against the Seattle Seahawks. They lost the race for the NFC West, but managed to qualify for the playoffs based on their strong start to the season.
Still, Arizona has some concerns heading into this game. They have lost their last two games, and have been plagued with key injuries, particularly at quarterback. The Cardinals have announced that they will start third-string quarterback Ryan Lindley for this playoff contest. he will have his hands full against a surging Carolina defense That likely means that Arizona running back Kerwynn Williams will play a key role. If he can be effective, he can open up the Cardinals offense and keep the Panther defense a little more honest. If not, it might be a long day for the Cardinals, as the Panthers will look to take advantage of their home field and become the second team with a losing record to notch a playoff win.
By Charles Bordeau
Photo by Keith Allison – Flickr