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 Championship game Green Bay Packers @ Seattle Seahawks

2 time zones and the small matter of a 1,933 mile drive separate the frozen tundra of Wisconsin from the temperate (and more often than not soggy) Pacific Northwest geographically but football-wise it’s each team’s ability to run the football and stop the run that is separates them this season. The Seahawks lead the league in rush yards and their defence was the hardest to run against in the NFL this season too. The Packers on the other hand finished the regular season with the 11th best rushing average on offence and rather worryingly the 23rd tightest run defence in the league, although it should be pointed out that the Packers inability to stop the run is largely a by-product of Nose Tackle B.J Raji missing the entire season with a torn bicep.
The Seahawks have not lost a game since Middle Linebacker Bobby Wagner returned from injury on week 12 and since his return they’ve only conceded 56points at an average of 8 per game. Russell Wilson hasn’t lost to Aaron Rodgers in their 2 previous meetings and the Packers haven’t won in Seattle since 2009, so there’s not much reason for optimism for the boys from back East. In fact things look so bleak for the Packers injuries are one of the few things that could assist them, the Seahawks have 15 players on Injured Reserve and a further 8 players missing from practice this week while the Packers only have 10 on Injured reserve and 4 who have missed practice but 2 of them will definitely play because if Eddie Lacey and Aaron Rodgers can stand up they’ll be on the field. The Seahawks have got a particular injury problem on defence where they have 6 defensive linemen on IR and 3 linebackers also missing. The only other issue the Seahawks have experienced this season is ill discipline, they were the most penalised team in the NFL during the regular season and if Rodgers and the Packers are able to keep the score tight and build a bit of tension then they could benefit from some of the ticky-tacky refereeing calls these playoffs are in danger of being remembered for.
The Packers haven’t really got much going for them in this match-up and unless Aaron Rodgers is 100% fit (which he probably isn’t) there’s nothing to suggest the Packers season won’t finish where it started on the 4th of September last year with a 20 point loss in front of the “12th man” at CenturyLink Field. The thing about Rodgers and the Packers is they’re scrappers and with the officiating we’ve seen this postseason it’s far from certain. For what it’s worth the Packers pass rush should be able to cause the Seahawks offensive line and Russell Wilson some problems but it won’t help them stop Marshawn Lynch if he turns on his “Beastmode”.