NFL Wild Card Weekend: Arizona Cardinals (11-5) at Carolina Panthers (7-8-1) preview and prediction.

NFL fans, the playoffs are finally here!

Wild Card Weekend will officially get underway later today, with two physical matchups taking place. Then, there will be tomorrow’s games, which are also loaded with a fair amount of intrigue.

Although one of the games pits two teams from last year’s Wild Card round, (Cincinnati at Indianapolis), the other three all feature teams that were on the shelf for at least the past year, and as is always the case, an upset can happen at any given point in time. Each game can go either way, so each one is a coin flip, including the first one.

 

Arizona Cardinals (11-5) at Carolina Panthers (7-8-1) (4:20/3:20c, ESPN)

Line: Panthers by 6.5.  O/U: O/U: 37.5

The first game of the week features two underwhelming teams, and boy is it a doozie to predict. Both teams feature hard-hitting  defenses, which is how they got here. However, the season ended very differently for each team.

The Panthers looked to be all but dead after falling in Minneapolis by 18 points back in Week 13. They had fallen to 3-8-1, and the New Orleans Saints were looking to finally get on track. However, the following week, they destroyed the Saints, in New Orleans, by 31 points. Then, after a pair of close, low-scoring home wins over the Cleveland Browns and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the Panthers stomped past the Atlanta Falcons, getting the NFC South crown.

Meanwhile, the Cardinals are downright slumping. They began the season with an 11-1 mark, despite losing starting quarterback Carson Palmer to an ACL tear back in Week 10. However, since they beat the Detroit Lions to get to 11-1, the team has fallen apart. They’ve lost their backup quarterback Drew Stanton, starting running back Andre Ellington, as well as other key injuries. The team is depleted, and the offense seams dead.

That said, it’s not as if the Panthers are some sort of juggernaut. They still have a losing record, and despite winning their last two road games by a combined score of 75-13, the team has only gone 4-4 at home. The won 24-7 against Detroit back in Week 2 at home, and put up 31 in a win over the Chicago Bears in Week 5, but have failed to cross the 20 point mark in any home game since.

The key matchup in this game has to be Panthers rookie wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin and Cardinals cornerback Patrick Peterson. Benjamin lived up to his first round status, garnering nearly 1,000 yards receiving on the season.

Although the Cardinals have the same road record as the Panthers have at home, it’s hard to pick them. Sure, Ryan Lindley threw for over 300 yards last week in San Francisco, he threw three interceptions, and the team was unable to run the ball well. Even though the Panthers have played close in their last two home games, and those games were against teams not in the playoffs, it’s not as if the Cardinals are playing playoff caliber football.

I see this being a defensive matchup, that the Cardinals would win, if they had a starting quarterback not named Ryan Lindley. Unfortunately for them, they do. Also, the Cardinals have allowed over 120 rushing yards in all but one of their past six games. They even allowed the Atlanta Falcons to put up 142 on them!

In their last two games, The Cardinals allowed 473 rushing yards: 267 against the Seattle Seahawks, and 206 at San Francisco. Both of those teams’ quarterbacks are mobile, which is also the case with Panthers quarterback Cam Newton. Despite having a rough start to his season, one in which he missed the only two games of his career due to a pair of back fractures suffered in a car accident last month, Newton still managed to amass 500 yards rushing. He has run the ball 30 times for 195 yards and three touchdowns the past three weeks.

Furthermore, the Panthers have been rolling since oft-injured running back Jonathan Stewart returned to full form a few weeks ago. The team didn’t need him much last week, but in the three previous wins for the team, Stewart ran 66 times for 252 yards and a touchdown, including two 100-yard games. Basically, the key to the team’s recent success, regardless of whether Newton plays or not, has been the play of Stewart. The combination of a dual threat quarterback and workhorse running back has spelled doom for the Cardinals the past two weeks, and the same will happen today. Oh, and expect a solid performance from Greg Olsen. Prediction: Cardinals 13, Panthers 17. 

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