The Arizona Cardinals are back in the playoffs again. They'll be trying to avenge an early exit from last year's NFC Wild Card game when they face the Carolina Panthers. This time, the stakes are huge. The rematch winner will be basking in the glow of Super Bowl 50 at Levi's Stadium. If the Cardinals want to be relaxing on the shores of the San Francisco Bay Area, they'll need to follow five major keys to help them get there.
Stop Cam Newton
This is a no brainer. Newton has been in the midst of his best season since becoming the signal-caller for the Panthers. Newton is not the typical pocket passer. He's more of a running back with a darn good arm. That alone is the reason the Cardinals must put him in their crosshairs. The eventual MVP is a threat, either running or passing. Per Fox Sports, his numbers are slightly deceiving. His 59.8 percent completion average may seem mundane. It's covered by his passer rating of 99.4.
Newton also gets better as the year goes on. His completion ratio against the Seahawks was 72.7 percent. His rating also skyrocketed to 108.3. Keeping a linebacker in as a spy wouldn't hurt. He's burned teams with 4.8 yards per rush.
Use the Wide Receivers
The Cardinals have a distinct advantage with the receiving corps. Larry Fitzgerald, John Brown and Michael Floyd create arguably the most dangerous wide receiver package in the league. This set of weapons makes a solid Carson Palmer a threat on his worst days. Double teaming Fitzgerald will only leave Floyd and Brown open to make plays. The Panthers have a sound secondary, led by Josh Norman, but they will be tested against these shifty and elusive targets.
Carson Palmer has had a history of starting big games a little amped up. He'll overthrow his receivers or even lead them into acrobatic catches that could end up as interceptions. During the regular season, the Panthers defense ended one in every five offensive drives in a turnover. That usually led to excellent field position.
Per ESPN stats, they led the NFL in turnover differential with a +20. The Cardinals will have to keep interceptions and fumbles to a minimum. Those turnovers either kept Carolina in close games or helped them win blowouts.
The two early turnovers by Seattle were keys to the Carolina first half domination. Eliminate those and the game takes a whole new direction. The Cardinals would probably be having a rematch with Seattle and playing at home.
It's hard to play on the road in the NFL. With the officiating crews sometimes making mistakes, it's easy to have a little "home cooking" thrown in at the wrong time. But, the Cardinals have managed to play well and ended the season at 7-1 away from Arizona. That mark has been good enough to be best in the league. The Cardinals will need to focus even more at Bank of America Stadium. Carolina is 8-0 at home.
Defense Must Show Up
When fans think of the Cardinals, they think of offense. Surprisingly, the Cardinals defense is a stout unit. The Cardinals D finished at No. 5 in total yardage and No. 7 in points allowed. Both the Cardinals and Panthers defensive units flaunt a Top 10 ranking. That championship pedigree will have to show up against Cam Newton and keep the motor running for 60 minutes. They will be responsible for shutting out Newton's favorite target Greg Olsen. If they can manage to make the Carolina offense one-dimensional, there's a good chance the Cardinals will be playing in warm and sunny California.
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