Love the matchups: elite offense (Cardinals) vs. elite defense (Panthers), MVP (Cam Newton) and one of the NFL’s most balanced offenses (49.6 percent run) vs. a Carolina defense that ranked Top 10 in virtually every significant category.
Three tipping points:
1 - These are the two teams that led the NFL in takeaways: Carolina with 39, Arizona with 33. No other team had more than 30. The Panthers only gave the football away 19 times to the Cardinals’ 24, not a huge difference over a 16-game schedule, but games turn on takeaways and nobody does that better than Ron Rivera’s defense.
2 - The Panthers have rushed for 100 or more yards in 30 straight games and are 21-2 in the last 23 of those. Why that looms as significant is that the Cardinals’ three losses this season were the games in which they allowed their most rushing yardage: to St. Louis (164), Seattle (145) and Pittsburgh (141). And two of Arizona’s three losses were in among the three games in which the Cardinals failed to rush for more than 55 yards (Pittsburgh 55, Seattle 27).
3 - Neither quarterback has played before with a Super Bowl 60 minutes away. The notion of Newton tensing up is difficult to imagine, particularly at home. But if there was one surprise from Arizona’s survival win over Green Bay, it was Carson Palmer’s occasional accuracy issues, including two interceptions. That was in a truncated game plan, per Bruce Arians, and had the look of Palmer wobbling just a tad under pressure.
[SHOP: Gear up Bears fans!]
That will be all the Panthers, Thomas Davis, Luke Kuechly and Josh Norman will need.
Pick: Panthers 28, Cardinals 24