Wild Card weekend kicks off with an intriguing battle between the NFC South champion Carolina Panthers and the Arizona Cardinals on Saturday afternoon in Charlotte. These two teams enter this matchup headed in complete opposite directions: the Panthers are one of the hottest teams in the league with four straight wins, while the Cardinals are 2-4 in their last six games.
On Nov. 17, the Cardinals had the NFL's best record at 9-1 and the Panthers were entering their bye week in last place in the NFC South with just three wins in 11 games. And one month ago, on Dec. 6, Carolina still had only three wins while Arizona had just three losses on its ledger. Now the Panthers are the team with all the momentum and heavily favored to win this game despite a sub-.500 record, while the 11-win Cardinals are limping into the postseason and seem headed for an early exit.
The Panthers, who are making back-to-back playoff trips for the first time in franchise history, might be the most unlikely postseason team in NFL history. They are just the second team in a non-strike season to make the playoffs after finishing the regular season with a losing record, along with the 2010 Seattle Seahawks who won the NFC West at 7-9. Carolina is also the only team to reach the playoffs after enduring a seven-game winless streak and going two months without a victory.
The Cardinals matched a franchise record with 11 regular-season wins, but are clearly not playing their best football of the season. Much of the blame for Arizona's freefall down the stretch can be placed on its unstable quarterback situation. The Cardinals have been forced to start three different players under center this year due to a crushing series of injuries at the team's most critical position. Carson Palmer was 6-0 before suffering a season-ending torn ACL injury in Week 10; backup Drew Stanton went 5-3 as a starter in his place, but injured his knee in Week 15; and third-stringer Ryan Lindley started the Cardinals' final two games, both losses.
Despite winning the worst division in the league with a losing record, the Panthers might be the NFC's most dangerous squad entering the playoffs. Carolina has become a complete team during its recent four-game win streak, and has the formula to succeed in the postseason: a strong running game, a dynamic quarterback, and a dominant defense.
The Panthers -- who ranked 21st in rushing yardage entering Week 14 -- had the second-most rush yards (797), second-most rushing attempts (152), and the most rushing first downs (43) of any team in the final four weeks of the season. Carolina's defense also stiffened during the final month of the season. The Panthers gave up the fourth-most points per game (27.6) in its first 12 games, but allowed just 10.8 points per game during its season-ending four-game win streak (second in NFL).
Arizona has struggled mightily on both offense and defense during its late-season skid, and faces a huge test in trying to stop the Panthers prolific ground game. The Cardinals boasted the NFL's third-best rush defense during its 9-1 start, allowing just 80.5 yards per game, but since then it has been among the worst teams in defending the run. Arizona gave up the third-most rushing yards per game (155.7) and the highest yards per carry (5.6) of any team in the final six weeks of the season, including a whopping 473 yards over its last two games.
The offense has suffered a similar downturn recently, though its a hardly a surprise given the team's messy quarterback situation. No team scored fewer points than the Cardinals (73) in the final six weeks of the season, and only the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (62.0) and Cleveland Browns (48.9) posted a worse passer rating than Arizona (65.0) in that span. Ryan Lindley showed improvement in Week 17, throwing his first two career touchdowns and completing 59 percent of his passes, but also threw three interceptions and will likely be seriously overmatched in his first playoff start against the tough Panthers defense on Saturday afternoon.
Who To Watch
Greg Olsen - The Panthers tight end had a career-best season, finishing with a franchise-record 1,008 receiving yards and 84 receptions. Although he is coming off two of his worst games of the season -- three catches for 48 yards in Weeks 16 and 17 -- Olsen is poised to have a breakout performance against a Cardinals pass defense that has struggled to contain tight ends. Arizona allowed a league-high 66.2 receiving yards per game to tight ends this season, including two 100-yard games in the last four weeks (Travis Kelce and Luke Willson).
Larry Fitzgerald - The veteran wide receiver knows how to perform on the league's biggest stage -- he had a postseason-record 546 receiving yards during Arizona's Super Bowl run in 2008 -- but age has clearly caught up to the 31-year-old wideout in 2014. Fitzergerald had his least productive season since his rookie year, totaling just 63 receptions and 784 yards, and finished with a career-worst two touchdown catches. If the Cardinals are going to pull off the upset against the Panthers, they'll need a huge performance and some game-changing big plays from their franchise receiver.
Bank of America Stadium, located in downtown Charlotte, opened in 1996 for the inaugural season of the Panthers. The 74,000-seat stadium is known for its unique architectural features, such as massive arches and towers at the entries. Fans are also greeted by a pair of 8-foot-tall black panthers perched on 10-foot pedestals, located on both sides of the arched entrances. The stadium recently underwent a $65 million renovation, which added new high-definition video boards and an enhanced sound system to the current infrastructure.
How to Watch
Where: Bank of America Stadium, Charlotte, N.C.
When: 4:25 p.m. ET
Announcers: Mike Tirico, Jon Gruden
The Panthers are the overwhelming pick to win this game by NFL experts. Six of the eight members of our panel at SB Nation are taking Carolina at home, with only Joel Thorman and the OddsShark computer predicting an upset by Arizona. The folks at CBS Sports and ESPN are also heavily favoring the Panthers to advance to the divisional round next weekend.
For more on the Cardinals, check out Revenge Of The Birds.
To keep up with the Panthers, head over to Cat Scratch Reader.
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