NFC Championship game – Arizona Cardinals @ Carolina Panthers

DSC_0198I’ve theorised two opposing hypotheses with regard to the possible conclusion’s this game may reach, the first is related to the fact the Panthers were held scoreless by the Seahawks for the final 36 minutes and 26 seconds of their game Divisional game against the Seahawks and that should be a concern for Ron Rivera not to mention something the Cardinals Defence will be able to learn from. The Cardinals Defence held the Packers to just 2 second quarter Field Goals in the first half last week. On the side of the ball the Cardinals, unlike the Panthers finished strongly, scoring 10 points in the 4th quarter and of course, the winning touchdown in Overtime. The last 6 Panthers drives last week ended in 5 punts and the end of the game after Thomas Davis Sr. Recovered the Seahawks onside kick.
The second (more likely) theory centres around the fact the Cardinals have had their struggles with powerful Running Backs recently. Eddie Lacy ran for 84 yards last week at an average of 7.4 yards per run and in week 16 of the regular season the Seahawks Christine Michael ran for 102 yards as Pete Carroll’s team delivered the Cardinals a 36-6 beating. In fact in the 3 games the Cardinals lost during the regular season they were consistently undone by running games. Apart from Christine Todd Gurley (who to be fair made a few defence’s look silly in his rookie year) recorded 146 yards against the Cardinals as the Rams pipped them 24-22 and probably more worryingly for Bruce Arians the Quarterback/ Running Back combination of Michael Vick and Le’Veon Bell accounted for 135 yards when the Steelers rushed for 141 yards in 25-13 win when the teams met at Heinz Field in October. Cam Newton and Jonathan Stewart have combined or 71% of the Panthers total Rushing yards (roughly 28% of their total Offensive yards) this season so that may be their success as a pair may well determine the result of the game. Jonathan Stewart returned from an injured foot last week to rattle up 106 yards and score 2 touchdowns (incidentally the Panthers have won every game that Stewart has been involved in this season). However Stewart injured his ankle in the 2nd half last week and has missed training this week, although he is due to play running with a sore ankle on a pitch that’s bound to cut up after the pretty extreme weather that’s hit the East Coast of America in the last day will be tricky to say the least.
How ever this game pans out anything other than a very close denouement will be a surprise with both teams’ points difference on the season being separated by just 12 (or 0.75 per game). They both scored 35 passing touchdowns during the regular season and while the Cardinals threw 13 interceptions (3 more than the Panthers) the Panthers allowed 33 sacks (6 more than the Cardinals) so Dwight Freeney could be the man to win this game. Both teams have very real chances to win this game with the Cardinals having a receiving corps with the likes of future Hall of Famer Larry Fitzgerald, young guns like J.J Nelson and John Brown and the sizeable Michael Floyd Luke Kuelchy’s coverage ability will be tested (he saved the Panthers Defensive Backs from a giving up a few big plays to Russell Wilson last week). The Panther’s pass defence does start to unravel when opposing Quarterbacks break the pocket and they have to cover receivers ad hoc, while Carson Palmer is 36 and not renowned for scrambling around the play he made in overtime to Larry Fitzgerald showed that he can make pass rushers miss. Tight Ends Darren Fells and Jermaine Gresham are both excellent receivers but they have only made 11% Cardinals receptions this season, in a game where ball control could be the key the ability to throw short passes into gaps in coverage could be a useful tool for Palmer. If the Cardinals aren’t able to build long drives and take time off the clock then the Panthers running game, even with a dinged up Stewart, should be enough for them to win (Mike Tolbert, Fozzy Whitaker and Cameron Arts-Payne should all be available and they all averaged over 4 yards per carry during the regular season) and Cam Newton not Carson Palmer will become the 4th Heisman Trophy winning Quarterback to start a Super Bowl.

NFC Divisional game #1 Green Bay Packers @ Arizona Cardinals

DSC_0198Aaron Rodgers and his Packers team have been vying for the most unpredictable team of the season award ever since they lost to the Detroit Lions at Lambeau Field (for the first time since 1991) back in week 10. Extrapolating any patterns or trends from their statistic’s would be rendered largely pointless because as a team they’ve notched up 4 wins and 6 losses since their bye week and not only have their results been inconsistent they haven’t followed any sort of pattern; 3 losses were followed by a victory, then a loss, then 3 more wins and finally 2 losses to end the regular season including a resounding 38-8 thumping in the desert at the hands of the Cardinals. As if to prove just how unpredictable the Packers have been they had the leading rusher in that game as Eddie Lacy averaged 5 yards per carry while recording 60 yards on the ground, he added a further 28 receiving yards and caught a Touchdown pass but they still conspired to lose by 30 points, largely by fumbling 5 times and losing 3 of them.
The Cardinals suffered their own thumping loss this season, leaving it until the last game of the regular season when it could be said some players were more interested in making it to the Playoffs in one piece rather than fully committing to stopping the Seahawks who ran out 36-6 winners in the University of Phoenix Stadium. In that game the Cardinals also had trouble stopping a physical Running Back in Christine Michael who averaged 6 yards per carry. To compound the problem they have had with stopping Running Backs the Cardinals lost 318 pound Defensive End Cory Redding to injury this week and Linebacker Alex Okafor was placed on the non-football injury list. They have been replaced with undersized Linebacker Gabe Martin who was signed from their practice squad and veteran Jason Babin who spent some time with the Ravens in 2015 as cover when Terrell Suggs was injured. With a bit of a patchwork Offensive Line in front of Aaron Rodgers Babin should be able to cause problems for the Packers Offence, despite being 35 years old he has still got the strength to push the pocket and add to the 48 sacks Rodgers has taken so far this season. Pass rush hasn’t been a major asset for the Cardinals this season and the 36 sacks they managed in the regular season saw them ranked joint 20th in the NFL, they’ve been better at turning the ball over with their 19 Interceptions and 14 Forced Fumbles making them second in the NFL when it comes to takeaways. However the Cardinals pass rush has recently been boosted by the signing of another 35 year old, Dwight Freeney who played in first game against the Steelers on the 18th of October and has recorded 8 sacks in the subsequent 10 games, including 3 against the Packers in December.
The Cardinals Offence led the league during the regular season with 6533 total yards and their 30.6 points per game average was only beaten by the Panthers who topped the league standings. The Packers scored 35 points last weekend as Rodgers threw for 210 yards (81 of which James Jones put down to his “lucky hoodie”) 2 Touchdowns (one to much maligned Receiver Davante Adams who was widely expected to be a game winner this season) and Eddie Lacy and James Starks both scored rushing Touchdowns, so Offensively both of these teams could be evenly matched (although much of that depends on whether or not Rodgers’ Receivers can catch passes which is something that has been a serious issue all season) but the Packers Defence allowed Kirk Cousins to throw for 329 yards 120 of which were thrown to Tight End Jordan Reed) and score a rushing touchdown. If they don’t seriously improve this week Carson Palmer will be throwing touchdown passes for fun, only Tom Brady threw more than him during the regular season so it’s safe to say he’s in the form of his life. The Cardinals welcome back Running Back Andre Ellington this week too so they’ll have 2 of the best pass catching Running Back’s lining up in the backfield as he and rookie David Johnson share time. Johnson scored 12 Touchdowns this season, 4 through the air and while Ellington only caught 15 passes in his injury hit season he averages 9.1 yards per catch over the course of his career. With Tight Ends Darren Fells and Jermaine Gresham available on the inside and veteran Larry Fitzgerald recording 17 catches of 20+ yards during the regular season Palmer should have enough tools to end the Packers Playoff hopes, but since they are the most unpredictable team of the season the only certainty is that it will be unmissable and if Aaron Rodgers can inspire the Packers and they manage to minimise the turnovers then it will be a high scoring spectacular but unfortunately for James Jones it’s not going to be hoodie weather in Glendale.