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2014 Wild Card Playoff
Preview: Cards @ Panthers

Setting the Stage:
The 11-5-0 Cards lost two straight (not easy ones) to Seattle and San Francisco to lose a Bye and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. Playing without their #1 and #2 quarterbacks (Carson Palmer and Drew Stanton) the Cardinals struggled to put up decent offensive numbers (although backup QB Ryan Lindley did catch fire to start the Niner game only to succumb to a series of mistakes and cool off considerably in the second half. Meanwhile the 7-8-1 Panthers have the weakest record of any NFL division-winner. Last week they pole-axed an Atlanta club (who shredded the Cards a few weeks ago) 34 - 3.Since a 31- 13 loss to the Vikes, the Panthers have won four-straight (including close wins over the Bucs and Browns and a 41-10 shellacking of the Saints.

Opponents' Last Game:
It was "all Carolina." According to nfl.com, "here's what you need to know from the game:

1. Carolina is a playoff team because they found an identity late in the season. Their running game took off when Jonathan Stewart took over as their primary running back because of DeAngelo Williams' injury. And their pass rush took fire late in the year, with veteran Charles Johnson leading the way.

2. Stewart only had 49 yards rushing Sunday, but the team as a whole ran for 195 yards in part because Cam Newton led the way. The Panthers have re-embraced Newton as a running option, and the Falcons' pass rush could not get him to the ground even when they pressured him on Sunday.

3. ...Matt Ryan made a number of poor throws under pressure, including two passes returned for a touchdown...

4. This was Ron Rivera's dream game. His squad won by 31 and his leading receiver had only 28 yards. The Panthers will host the Cardinals next week in a very winnable game for Carolina.

First Quarter

  • Panthers received. TB on the KO. Newton leads his team to the Falcon 3, where they settle for a 21 yard Gano FG. Panthers 3 - Falcones 0.

    TB on the KO. Falcs move to the Panteraq 42 yard line before a pooch punt is fair caught at the Pantera 13. A 10-play drive featuring a 28-yard scamper by C Johnson around LE results in a 5-yard Newton to Dickson TD hookup. Panteras 10 - Falcones 0.

  • Hester returns the KO 66 yards and the Falcs set up shop at the Pantera 38 to start the next quarter.

First Quarter Score: Panteras 10 - Falcones 0.

Second Quarter

  • The Falcs mount their only scoring drive of the game - which ends at the Pantera 3 with a 21-yard Bryant FG. Panteras 10 - Falcones 3.

    The two teams exchange three & outs. On the next Carolina possession, they're able to move to their own 47 in 5 plays before punting. Punt goes out of bounds at the Falcone 19. It is at this point in the game that the Falcon offense blows up. First play from scrimmage: a sack for minus 5-yards. Next play is nullfied by a false start penalty. On the third play - Matty Ice is iced for a Pick 6 (with Harper picking off a pass intended for White and returning it 31-yards for a Pantera TD. Carolina 17 - Atlanta 3.

    A holding penalty on the KO pins Atlanta back to its own 6. four plays later, White snares a pass but has the ball stripped away by Glanton. After a challenge (that it was a fumble), play "stood"/Pantera ball at the Atlanta 4. On the next play, Newton ran it in over LG for the score. Carolina 24 - Atlanta 3.

    TB on the KO. Falcons moved to their own 45 before punting. Final play before halftime was a 3-yard run by Stewart.

First Half Score: Panteras 24 - Falcones 3.

Third Quarter

  • Atlanta received. TB on the KO. Three and out (with Ryan being sacked by Horton). Punt returned to the Carolina 41. Eight play drive stalls at the 30 with Gano booting home a 48-yarder. Panteras 27 - Falcones 3.

    TB on the KO. The two teams again exchange 3 & outs. Falcons then engineer a really long (13 play 5:39) drive that ends up without any points when Ryan - throwing from the Pantera 36 is picked off by Boston who returns it for an 84-yard Pick 6. (Kickoff ends the quarter). Panteras 34 - Falcones 3.

First Half Score: Panteras 34 - Falcones 3.

Fourth Quarter

  • Atlanta starts out on its own 23. It reaches the Carolina 23 on a long drive before Ryan gets sacked by Lotoleilei and Carolina takes over on downs at its own 28.

    Panther scrubs run out the clock, bleeding 8:19 worth of time by running the ball 11 straight times before surrendering the ball to Atlanta at the Falc 31 with 2:35 left. From there it was Atlanta practicing a few choice offensive plays before the clock ran out.

  • Final Score: Carolina 34 - Atlanta 3.

Game Stats
It was mainly Carolina's defense and running game vs. a mistake-prone Atlanta team. Things got out of hand early.

  • Newton only threw 16-times, completing 10 for 114 yards and one TD. He threw no picks.

  • He also led his team in rushing with 51 yards on on 6 carries and scored one TD. Whittaker and Tolbert did mop up duty late in the game with 7 carries apiece.

  • Workhorse of the Carolina ground game was Jonathan Stuart (13 carries for 49 yards).

    Only one Pantera receiver (Cotcherie) had as many as 3 catches. (Just two receivers had 2).

    Gano was 2 for 2 in FG attempts.

  • Kuechly led the defense with 8 tackles followed by Benwikere (7) and Lotoleilei (7) and Harper with 6.

  • The Pantera pass rush got to Matt Ryan 6 times. Lotoleilei was credited with 2 sacks, C. Johnson, Ealy and Horton with 1 sack apiece and T Davis and Shoer each with 1/2 a sack.

  • Atlanta actually led Carolina in 3rd down conversion percentage - 43% to 40%.

  • Carolina gained 194 net rushing yards (while giving up 63 to Atlanta).

  • Panteras gave up 225 net passing yards (while gaining just 112).

    Carolina was only +1 in turnover ratio (having picked off 2 passes vs. 0 by Atlanta and losing one fumble (vs. 0 for the Falcs). But the telling point was that the two picks went for touchdowns and the fumble was inside the 5).

    Both teams were in the 48 - 48.3 net yards per punt range

  • Carolina was penalized 5 times for 36 yards. (Atlanta was penalized 6 times for 36.

  • Carolina won Time of Possession 31:13 to 28:47

What the Season Stats Do (or Don't) Tell Us
(Note - Published team statistics may not reflect a team's most recent game or even two).

  • First Downs: Panteras 347/Opponents 309

  • Rushing First Downs: Panteras 117/Opponents 91.

    Total Offensive Yards: Panteras 5,547/Opponents 5,437

    Yards Per Play: Panteras 5.2/Opponents 5.4

    Total Rushing Yards: Panteras 2,036/Opponents 1,792

    Sacks: Panteras 40 / Opponents 42

  • Field Goals: Panteras 29 for 35/Opponents 22 for 28.

    Touchdowns: Panteras 36 / Opponents 44

  • Rushing TD's: Panteras 10/ Opponents 14

  • Panteras own a 32:17 to 28:40 time of possession edge over their opponents.

    Panteras have a +3 turnover ratio.

  • Newton has completed 58.5%) of his throws for 3,127 yards. He's thrown for 18 TD's and has been picked off 12 times and sacked 38 times. He's also Carolina's second most prolific rusher (behind Stuart) gaining 539 yards on 103 carries (5.2 yards per carry).

  • Stuart is their leading rusher with 809 yards on 175 carries (4.6 ypc). He's also 4th in catches out of the backfield with 25 (one for a TD).

  • Olsen leads all Seattle receivers with 84 catches for 1,008 yards and 6 TD's. Benjamin is the #2 (more like #1.5) dude with 1,008 yards and 73 catches. Cotcherie is #3 with 580 yards & 48 catches

  • Gano is 35 for 39 (only 1 for 3 outside the fifty).

  • Norman's punting numbers are pretty close to those of opposing punters in total yardage, net yardage and directional/accurate punting.

  • Opposing kick and punt returners have outgained Pantera returners by an average of 7.5 yards on punts and 10.6 yards on kickoffs.
  • Kuechly leads all tacklers by quite a bit (153 vs. their #2 guy T Davis who has 100). Next guy is Harper with 62 tackles.
  • Sacks are spread around. C.Johnson leads with 8.5, followed by Addison 6.5, Ealy 4.0, Edwards 4.0, Short 3.5, Horton 3.0 and Kuechlly 3.0.

  • Seattle pass defenders have 14 picks compared to 12 for their opponents. Harper leads the Panteras with 4 interceptions. Cason and Norman have 2 apiece.

Rosters/Match-ups
Seattle has returned to its earlier sprint-draw philosophy, and Newton did to Atlanta what Kaepernick did to us. With the explosive Williams on the bench and unable to attack a counter-lane as a home run threat, Stuart has stepped in and given the Panther offense a bit more "thump" to go with Newton's running threat. Defensively, Carolina operates out of a 4-3 featuring WILL and SAM outside backers, with its strong points being Kuechly at MLB and C Johnson at LDE.

Seattle Offense

WR....82 Cotcherie.....16 P Brown        
LT      77 Bell...............63 Foucault                   
LG     68 Norwell.........66 Silatolu   
C       67 Kalil...............64 Folkerts      
RG    70 Turner............75 Velasco...... 79 Scott    
RT     74 Remmers
TE.....88 Olsen...........84 Dickson.........86 B Williams                 
WR...13 Benjamin......11 Bersin                                
QB....01 Newton........03 D Anderson....14 Webb              
FB     35 Tolbert
RB    28 Stuart...........42 Whittaker......(34 D Williams
)

Cardinal Defense

DE        95 Kelly...........96 K,Martin      
NT        92 D. Williams 66 Ta'amu                     
DT        98 Rucker       72 Stinson                    
SLB      57 Okafor........53 Keiser        
ILB       50 Foote..........54 Demens              
ILB       51 Minter..........97 Alexander 56 Carson                     
WLB     94 Acho...........59 Benard    
LCB      21 Peterson.....28 Bethel                      
RCB     31 Cromartie....25 Powers                     
SS        22 Jefferson.....36 Bucannon                 
FS        32 Mathieu.......26 R. Johnso
n   

Matchup: Pantera Passing Attack vs. Cardinal Pass Defense
Newton heads up an efficient though not spectacular passing attack, completing 58.3 % of his throws and sporting an 18-to-12 TD-to-Pick ratio. His receivers (Benjamin and Cotcherie) aren't quite the caliber the Cards have been used to seeing in division opponents like SF and Seattle. In fact their leading receiver is their TE (Olsen).

Carolina pass blockers have allowed 40 sacks (which is two fewer than the number of times they've sacked opposing QB's). Their O-line is primarily comprised of no-names - the single exception being their center (Kalil).

It's hard to gauge Cardinal pass rushers because they've been up against the elite in recent games with Seattle and SF. Last week, they had the frustrating tendency of bouncing off Kaepernick and allowing him to beat us with his legs. Newton possesses even greater running skills than the Niner field general, and the Panthers are returning to "riding that pony."

The "Texas Toast" combination of Okafor and Acho have harassed opposing QB's more than many of us expected, but - within Todd Bowles' "blitz early/blitz often/blitz from anywhere" pass rush system, you never know which Cardinal pass rusher - be it lineman, LB or DB - will get hot.

Key Matchups: Acho or Okafor vs. Bell and Remmers. Wildcard Cardinal pass rusher vs. whoever on the Panthers is responsible for blitz or stunt pickup.

Matchup: Pantera Rushing Attack vs. Cardinal Run Defense
In the absence of D'Angelo Williams, Jonathan Stuart has emerged a solid ground-gaining force for the Panther gaining over 800 yards and averaging 4.6 YPC. But the real threat is Newton - who is thriving within a Panther offensive system which gives him more opportunities to run the ball.

Both Cardinal coaches and players pointed to poor tackling fundamentals and sloppy gap-discipline as keys to their loss to Kaepernick and the Niners. So, OK - Cardinal defenders are all saying the right things. Question Saturday remains: "Will they back up words with actions. One thing that should help: Starting run-stopper and veteran leader, Larry Foote (who was out last week) is slated to return.

Key Matchups: Foote vs. Stuart. Mathieu, Jefferson (or another spy) vs. Newton.

Cardinal Offense

WR1     11 Fitzgerald....19 Ginn...............13 John Brown   
LT         68 Veldheer......79 Sowell                      
LG        62 Larsen..., ....61 Cooper                     
C          63 Sendlein......62 Larsen                     
RG       74 Fanaika.......78 Watford                   
RT        70 Massie........79 Sowell                      
TE        87 Niklas..........85 Fells            
WR2     15 M. Floyd.....13 Jaron Brown              
QB        xx Lindley........xx Stanton............06 Thomas.    
RB        38 Ellington.....30 Taylor)............39 Hughes....xx Grice
TE        89 Carlson.......84 Housler

Pantera Defense

LDE.....95 C Johnson....97Addison......90 Alexander  
LDT......99 Short............91 Cole       
RDT......98 Lotoleilei......92 Edwards.....61 Love     
RDE.....96 Horton.........94 Ealy 
SLB......56 Klein............57 Glanton            
MLB.....59 Kuechly.......53 Jacobs             
WLB.....58 T Davis........52 Reddick
LCB......25 Benwirkere..23 M White
RCB.....24 Norman.......37 Byndom.....31 Dockery       
SS........41 Harper.........38 Lester            
FS........33 Boston........21 Decoud........42 CJone
s

Matchup: Cardinal Passing Attack vs. Pantera Pass Defense
The name of our starting QB is still up in the air. Stanton would give us a better chance vs. Carolinal, but you have to give Lindley
credit for an outstanding 1st quarter vs. SF. Problem is: during the remaining 3 quarters Lindley threw 3 interceptions and his effectiveness seemed to melt away. (It should be noted that Stanton has exhibited a similar tendency though not quite as severe as Lindley). I guess we can hope that Lindley's rate of improvement shown in that 1Q will continue into the upcoming game with the Panthers, but I think most of us would be more comfortable with Stanton.

Cardinal pass blocking has been good enough to keep Lindley upright most of the time, but sometimes a statistical average of 2-sacks a game will mask the amount of pressure that has forced him to make premature (& faulty) decisions.

Last week, Floyd had a huge game, and John Brown demonstrated more consistency than he had in the recent past. But Fitz is still not even close to being more than, say, 75% of his usual self and has seemed to be more "decoy" than go-to-receiver of late. Our TE's (Housler and Carlson) have been looking more consistent running routes and catching passes of late.

Last week the Panther defense stood up and "punched Mattie Ice and the Falcons in the mouth", with 2 Pick Sixes and a key fumble recovery. Over the full season, however, the Panther secondary seems fairly ordinary. Harper leads Pantera defenders with 4 interceptions. (Cason - who's no longer on the active roster) and Norman are credited with 2 picks apiece.

C. Johnson and Addison are the two leading Panther sackmeisters, both unorthodoxly attacking the QB from the DLE position. Card pass blockers will have to be especially on their toes, and Lindley and/or Stanton must be extra-cautious to protect the ball.

Key Matchup: C Johnson vs. Veldheer. Addison vs. Massie. Floyd vs. Norman.

Matchup: Cardinal Running Attack vs. Pantera Run Defense
Kuechly is a one-man wrecking crew vs. the run for the Panteras, leading
his team in tackles. Other than the one other exception of Lotoleilei, the Carolina front-seven seems to be dotted with no-names, yet they're getting the job done.

Coach Arians seems to have a love-hate relationship with his running attack (he'll start out games running as much or more than he passes - often with good results), but when things get close or we fall behind, he seems to revert to a mixture of short passes mixed with a higher number of chunk-yardage attempts downfield. (It may just be because those big-yardage opportunities are there - possibly because opposing DC's are daring Lindley to hit those deep passes with more accuracy).

Arians has promised to stick with the run more faithfully (We'll see). When they're rolling, our new RB workhorses, Stepfan Taylor and Kerwynn Williams have been averaging close to 5-yards per carry and definitely keep opposing defenses honest. Both are more lunchpail than spectacular but are capable of getting the job done.

Key Matchup: Williams and Taylor vs. Kuechly, Lotoleilei and Harper.

Special Teams

Panteras

P/H   08 Nortman                 
K       09 Gano                          
LS     44 Jansen                              
KR    43 Whittaker                     
PR    11 Berins

Cardinals

K          07 Catanzaro                             
P          02 Butler                             
H          02 Butler                               
LS        82 Leach                                  
KR        19 Ginn             12 John Brown               
PR        19 Ginn             21 Peterson        12 John Brow
n

Matchup: Pantera Special Teams vs. Cardinal Special Teams
This may be where we have an edge. Both teams are pretty equal in the kicking and punting depts., but Carolina gives up 10.5 yards more than their opponents in kick returns and 7.5 yards more on punt returns. The Cardinals have Ted Ginn.

Key matchups: Ginn vs. Panther coverage teams.

Coaching
Both coaches have rags-to-riches stories they can tell. Ron Rivera took over a 2 & 14 Panther team and led it to a 12 & 4 playoff contender within 5 years. BA is mentioned frequently by national media people as a shoe-in for Coach of the Year due his ability to guide his team to 11 & 5 despite injuries to his #1 and #2 QB's and key defensive personnel. Rivera's teams seem to thrive on not beating themselves with too many mistakes. Arians has relied on a battery of wise, old assistants paired with young, energetic position coaches who are learning from the old guys.

Last Word
It's a one-game elimination match. Game is at Carolina (which is worth a 3-point Panther edge according to the bettors). Cards seem to have more talent on their roster (and a better W & L record) but Carolina is trending up while the Cards are trending down (albeit to two very good Seattle and SF teams). That said - you can throw all that stuff out the window. Let's line 'em up and play ball!

 
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