This weekend's Wild Card game between the Cardinals and Panthers is a clash between two teams going in opposite directions. Only in the sucktackular NFC South could a 7-8-1 team like the Panthers win the division with a win on the last day of the season. However, don't get it twisted, the Panthers are the hotter team of the two at the moment, winning their last four games to get into the playoffs.
The Cardinals, on the other hand, after a scorching hot 9-1 record and visions of a number one seed in the NFC, are now limping into the playoffs, having lost four of their last six games to end up at 11-5 and somehow a fifth seed and traveling to Carolina in the first round. It's not just the records that are at odds with each other, either. The lowly Panthers are finally getting healthy with the playoffs quickly approaching. The Cardinals are still trying to deal with starting quarterback Carson Palmer being knocked out for the year with a knee injury against the Rams in Week 10, followed by losing his backup, Drew Stanton, in Week 15 during their second game against the Rams.
Third-string quarterback Ryan Lindley just hasn't been the answer, and the Cardinals have looked out of sorts on offense in the last two games he started. Arizona still isn't sure whether Stanton will be available this weekend, but word of advice, this game is going to come down to Cam Newton, anyway. More specifically, whether the Cardinals will be able to get Newton on the ground for a sack at least twice on Saturday.
Newton's up-and-down play this season has been a direct result of dealing with nagging injuries all year. The ankle surgery that didn't heal as quickly as Newton thought it would, the cracked ribs suffered early on in the season, the broken bones in his back from a recent car accident ... Newton just hasn't had very many games where he looked healthy this season, until about four weeks ago against the Saints. Newton rushed for his second highest total of the season, 83 yards and a touchdown in that game, and it looks like he has that little extra pep in his step that had been missing up until then. Not coincidentally, it's suddenly hard to get the guy on the ground again, which means he is extending plays and making big ones even against big time pressure. In the his last three starts, Cam has only been sacked twice.
However, this is a very recent development. To put it in perspective, even with the improved sack numbers in his last three starts, the Panthers still only rank 20th in the league in sacks allowed (41). Keep in mind, this is from a ball control offense that doesn't throw all that much anyway. Newton has been sacked three or more times in seven of his 14 starts this season. Yeah, that's right, half of the games he's started. Two sacks doesn't sound all that much of an ask for the Cardinals.
The reason this will be such an important point this weekend is precisely because while the Cardinals will have a great opportunity to get after Newton on passing downs, they haven't been all that great at coming home with sacks this season. In fact, the Cardinals defense is only 24th in the league with 35 sacks all year. That isn't to say that they haven't had a few big sack days this season, but they had just one multi-sack game in their last three games of the season.
They say chop off the head and the body will die. If the Cardinals hope to win the game Saturday, they are going to have to cut off the head of the Panthers' offense, Cam Newton ... metaphorically of course. If they can get him on the ground at least twice, then they'll follow six of the other seven teams that did so and walked away with a win this season. If they can't, then odds are Arizona will join the three teams, out of four, that didn't and walked away with a loss this season (the fourth team, the Bengals, tied the Panthers this season).
It really is that simple.