A spot in Super Bowl 50 is up for grabs when the Carolina Panthers welcome the Arizona Cardinals to Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte Sunday. This highly anticipated battle between the top two seeds in the NFC features MVP favorite Cam Newton and two of the best defenses in the league.
It was a different story last year when these two teams met in the playoffs.
A 7-8-1 Carolina team hosted the injury-depleted Cardinals in the Wild Card round. The Panthers' defense, helped along by third-string Cardinals quarterback Ryan Lindley, set a record in the 24-16 victory for the fewest yards allowed in a postseason contest with 78.
This time around, both teams are much improved. With Carson Palmer under center, Arizona finished the season 13-3, securing the second seed in the NFC and a first-round playoff bye. The Cardinals punched their ticket to the NFC Championship when they defeated the Green Bay Packers in a thrilling overtime Divisional game. The Panthers jumped out to a big lead and then had to fight off a surging Seahawks team in their 31-24 win last weekend.
Now, they're fighting for NFC supremacy and here are four things to watch for when theses two evenly matched teams face off:
1. Do the Panthers really have home-field advantage?
Road teams are generally assumed to be at a disadvantage, but the Cardinals have been dominant on the road this season. As a matter of fact, the Cardinals have been statistically better on the road than they were in home games in 2015. They were 6-2 at home but 7-1 on the road this season, with their only loss occurring at Heinz Field to the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Cardinals led the NFL in scoring on the road and put up more yards than they did at home.
But the Panthers have been excellent at home. Carolina carries a league-best 12-game home winning streak into the NFC Championship. The Panthers have outscored opponents 295-160 at home this season.
Something's gotta give.
2. Larry Fitzgerald could cement his postseason legacy
Larry Fitzgerald may be facing his last opportunity to win a Super Bowl, and after his overtime touchdown against the Packers to advance the Cardinals to the NFC Championship, Fitzgerald only needs two postseason touchdowns to be tied for the second-most playoff touchdowns in NFL history.
Jerry Rice currently holds the postseason touchdown record with 22, and it's difficult to imagine anyone breaking that one. John Stallworth is second with 12, and Fitzgerald has a real shot to achieve that mark. Should Fitzgerald get there, he will have done so in just nine career postseason games. Stallworth's 12 postseason touchdowns came over the course of 12 games.
3. Nobody's going to write letters to the editor about Carson Palmer's touchdown celebrations
Much has been made of Cam Newton's touchdown celebrations. His tendency to dab after scoring has spawned angry letters to editors and cries of, "How am I supposed to explain this to my children?" Don't expect the same kind of reaction to Carson Palmer's celebrations.
Palmer told ESPN.com this week that he's a hugger, not a dancer.
"I point at the sky, thank God, hug guys," Palmer said. "I hug, I don't dance. No one wants to see that."
Palmer chose to celebrate in a different way on one occasion this season and his "crotch-chop" celebration resulted in a fine from the league. It was the first fine of Palmer's career, probably because the league doesn't issue fines for hugging teammates.
4. That's not the biggest difference between Newton and Palmer
Both Newton and Palmer are Heisman Trophy winners, but the similarities end there. Palmer is much more of a pocket passer, and Newton is a dual threat. Newton's ability to extend plays with his legs has contributed to Carolina's offensive success this season.
Palmer, a 13-year veteran, has 424 total rushing yards and eight rushing touchdowns in his entire career. Newton had 636 yards and 10 touchdowns on the ground this season alone. So far in his five-year career, Newton has 3,207 rushing yards and 43 rushing touchdowns.
Even if they take different approaches, both quarterbacks are getting results. The Panthers were the top-scoring offense in the NFL in 2015, and the Cardinals were second in the league.
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Neither Carolina nor Arizona has ever won a Super Bowl, but one team will get a chance to earn the franchise's first ever Lombardi Trophy on Feb. 8. A date with either the Denver Broncos or the New England Patriots awaits the winner of the NFC Championship.