Last MInute News, Rumors etc.:
(Updated regularly if or when needed) -
Setting the Stage:
Cards edged GB in OT in what some historically-challenged pundits have termed "a game for the ages." (True, a lot of weird stuff happened - from a coin that didn't flip to the two GB Hail Mary's to the PP21 100-yard Pick 6 that got called back, the Palmer across-the-field throw to Fitz to the final shovel pass winner). We think some of those weirder heroics were the outgrowth of poor decision-making and sloppy execution by the Cards on both sides of the ball.
Meanwhile, the Panteras came out of the box smokin' to open up a 31 - 0 halftime lead vs. a Seattle team that already been anointed "the NFL team other teams would least have to face." They then hung on to withstand a savage Seattle second-half onslaught to preserve a 31 - 24 win.
Carolina is just about universally favored to win this playoff game - based on talent, past performance and record. But the nice thing about playoff and championship games is that it all boils down to 60-minutes of 11 elite athletes banging away at 11 other elite athletes on the field at any given point of time. Within that context anything can happen - from funky calls by the refs to weird decision-making or play-calling to a a key injury to an oblong leather ball that bounces funny.
What we do know is that, when both teams execute to potential, they both can post 30+ points. Carolina probably runs the ball better, has the better pass rush and is more adept at stopping the run. Their QB is more physical and more mobile than Carson Palmer, (but Carson has been known to be scary-accurate deep). The Cards figure to have a broader array of receiving weapons and a secondary that does a better job of defending vs. the pass. Finally, there are few if any better play-callers in the NFL than runce Bruce Arians..
Panthers Last Game
Panteras shot out of the gate, quickly built up a 31 - 0 halftime lead and then hung on in the 2H to post a 31 - 24 win over a highly regarded Seahawks team.
Carolina received & Webb returned the KO to their own 25. It took four plays to score a TD - starting with a 59-yard burst off left guard by Jonathon Stewart. Three plays later, Stewart went 4 yards up the middle for Carolina's first TD. Panteras 7 - Seattle 0.
Seattle returned the KO to its own 14. Two plays later, Wilson's pass for M Lynch was returned 14-yards by Kuechly for a Pick 6. Panteras 14 - Seattle 0.
KO returned to the Seahawk 25. A minus-10 yard sack by Short helped derail the Seahawk drive and force a punt from the Carolina 47. Punt was fair caught at the Carolina 14. Panteras mounted a 15 play drive that carried over to the next quarter. Key plays: A 27-yard completion to Olsen and a 16-yard completion over the middle to Dickson.
First Quarter Score: Panteras 14 - Seattle 0.
With the ball on the Seattle 5, Stewart ran off LT for +4 and then up the gut for a one-yard TD. Panteras 21 - Seattle 0.
TB on the KO. On the first play from scrimmage, A Wilson to Willson pass was picked off by Finnegan and returned to the Seattle 29. The Seahawks held Carolina to one yard and on 4th & 11, Gano's boot was good from 48. Panteras 24 - Seattle 0.
TB on the KO. A minus-8 yard sack by Boston contributed to a Seattle 3 & out. Punt from the Seattle 12 went out of bounds at the Pantera 46. A 17-yard completion to C. Brown and an 11-yard end-around gain by Ginn helped set up a 19-yard TD pass deep to Olsen. Panteras 31 - Seattle 0.
TB on the KO. Wilson led the Seahawks in 7 plays to the Carolina 14 before turning the ball over on downs. Carolina held to 3 & out. Punt fair caught at the Seattle 33. Seattle made it to the Carolina 37 before Hauschka was unable to kick a FG from 55 yards to end the half.
First Half Score: Panteras 31 - Seattle 0.
Seattle received. KO (with a 15-yard roughness flag tacked on) was returned to the Pantera 35. On the fourth play from scrimmage, Wilson hit Kearse for a 13-yard TD. Panteras 31 - Seattle 7.
KO returned to the Pantera 27. A sack for minus-10 forced a punt from the Pantera 32. Punt was returned to the Seahawk 37. Seahawks moved to the Carolina 33 in 7 plays (including a 14-yard scramble by Wilson, a completion to Kearse for +16 and surviving a minus-9 yard sack by Edwards and another 9 yard scramble by Wilson - before Wilson hit Lockett deep right for a 33-yard score. (This is getting vaguely interesting). Panteras 31 - Seattle 14.
KO returned to the Pantera 18. 8 play drive stalled at midfield. Punt fair caught at the Seattle 15. Seattle moved to the Carolina 46 in 9 plays where Ryan's punt was muffed but then downed at the Pantera 12. One play later, the quarter ended.
Third Quarter Score: Panteras 31 - Seattle 14.
Panthers moved to their own 38 in 9 plays before Nortman's punt was downed at the Seattle 27. A 27-yard completion to Lockett and completions of 15-yards to Kearse and 10 yards to Willson moved the ball deep into Pantera territory. On the 9th play of the drive, Wilson hit Kearse for a 3-yard TD. Ten point game. 6:04 left. Panteras 31 - Seattle 21.
KO returned to the Pantera 31. They stayed mostly on the ground before punting from their own 45. Fair catch (with penalty tacked on) gave Seattle the ball on their own 22 with 2:49 left. Wilson pecked his way downin 11 plays down to the Carolina 18, where Pete Carroll decided to take the FG now and try to recover an onside kick and tie the game with a TD. FG was good. Panteras 31 - Seattle 24.
Onside kick was covered by Carolina (T Davis). Three knees did it.
Final Score: Panteras 31 - Seattle 24.
Key differentials included Early Take Aways and Run Yardage.
Passing - Newton was 16 for 22 161 yards, one TD's and no interceptions.
Receiving - Olsen (a TE) was the only Carolina receiver with more than 3 catches. He gained 77 yards and had one TD.
Rushing - Panthers gained 144 net rushing yards (but ran the ball 41 times). Stewart gained 106 yards on 19 carries. Newton carried 11 times for just 3 yards.
Pass Defense -Carolina gave up 325 net passing yards.
Run Defense - Carolina surrendered 78 net rushing yards.
Turnovers - +2. Wilson was picked off twice. Newton threw no interceptions. Neither team lost the ball via fumble.
Tackles - Keuchly led with 11. Coleman and McClain were next with 8 followed by Norman and Finnegan with 5 each.
Interceptions - Two by Panthers (Keuchly and Finnegan)
Sacks - Panthers sacked Wilson 5 times. Newton was sacked once.
Third Down Efficiency - 8 for 15 (53%). Seattle had 5 for 11 (453%)
Net Punting Average - 36.3 (Seattle had 37.6).
Penalties - 3 for 25 yards Seattle was lagged 3 times for 20 yards).
Red Zone Efficiency: Carolina 3 for 3 (100%). Seattle 2 for 4 (50%).
Time of Possession: Carolina: 35:38 / Seattle 24:22.
Season Stats (prior to Sunday's game)
Carolina positive stats worth noting included: Rushing, turnovers, Olsen receiving yardage, linebacker play (tackles by Kuechly and Davis), Sacks, . Negatives: Kickoff returns.
First Downs: Panthers 357 - Opponents 298
First Downs (Rushing): Panthers 136 - Opponents 74
First Downs (Passing): Panthers 197 - Opponents 198
Receiving: Olsen (a TE) leads with 77 grabs for 1,104 yards (14.3 ypc) and 7. TD's. Ginn is next with 44 catches for 739 yards (16.8 ypc) and 10 TD's. followed by Funchess and C Brown with 31 catches apiece.
Passing Yards: Newton is credited with 296 completions of 495 passing attempts for a 59.8% completion average. He's thrown for 35TD's while throwing only 10 interceptions and has been sacked 33 times and sacked (or lost yardage) for 284 yards. He has an 99.4 QB rating.
Rushing: Stewart (who was injured part of the season) has gained 989 yards on 242 carries (4.1 ypa). Newton is nearly equally productive, ranking second with 636 yards on 132 attempts (4.8 ypa)..
Sacks: Panthers are credited with 44 sacks whille giving up 33. Short leads Pantera sackers with 11.0 followed Addison (on IR) (6.0), T Davis (5.5) and Ealy (5.0).
Tackles - Keuchly (118) and T Davis (105) have both exceeded 100 tackles followed by Coleman (90) and Harper (73). Six more Panther defenders have tackles in the sixties.
Field Goals: Gano was 24 for 30. 2 of 4 from outside the 50; 13 of 16 between the 40 and 50. (
Punting: Nortman averaged 45.4 yards. 25 of his 70 punts were either touhbacks or were downed inside the 20. By comparison, opponents averaged 4.63 yards with 34 of 78 punts falling inside the 20 or for touchbacks).
Punt Returns: Panthers averaged 9.4 ypr. (no TD's). Opponents averaged 7.8 (one YD).
Kickoff Returns: Panthers averaged 18.5 ypr (no TD's) vs. 26.6 (one TD) by their opponents.
Interceptions: The Panthers have picked off 24 passes (while only giving up 10. (Four interceptions were Pick 6's). Coleman leads with 7. Keuchly, Davis and Norman follow with 4 apiece.
Time of Possession: Panthers 32:03 - Opponents 28:33
Turnover Ratio: +20
WR....19 Ginn Jr........17 Funchess......81 Norwood
LT.......73 Oher...........60 D Williams.
LG......68 Norwell......79 C Scott
C........67 Kalil..........,61 Velasco
RG ...70 T Turner.....79 Cotchery.............J Walker
TE.....88 .Olsen........84 Dickson..........80 Simonson
WR....10 P Brown....82 Cotchery.........11 Bersin
QB.....01 Newton.....03 D Anderson....14 Webb
FB.....28 J Stewart..43 Whittaker.........34 Artis-Payne....32 Wegher
DE 93 Campbell..........71 Bryant
NT 95 Gunter...............69 X Williams
DT 92 Rucker..............73 Mauro.............72 Stinson
SLB 44 Golden.......... ..54 Freeney...........47 Riddick
ILB 20 Bucannon.........59 Fua.................50 G Martin
ILB 51 Minter...............55 Weathrspoon
WLB 96 K Martin...........58 Babin
LCB 21 Peterson..........27 C White
RCB 25 Powers.............28 Bethel
SS 26 R Johnson.......36 Swearinger
FS 22 Jefferson..........29 Clemons
Matchup: Panther Passing Attack vs. Cardinal Pass Defense
PFF rates Newton 5th best QB overall, 84.9 as a passer and 90.4 carrying the ball. Brown and Ginn get most of the snaps, but Cotchery and Funchess see plenty of action. Cotchery has a 79.2 receiving rating. P Brown, Funchess and Ginn follow with 74.7, 70.9 and 69.6 respectively. Primary receiving weapon on offense is Olsen (a #5-ranked receiver with a 96.8 receiving rating and 82.8 as a blocker. Their other TE - Dickson - is ranked #56 with receiving and blocking ratings in the 60's.). Stewart has a 65.4 rating as a receiver. Tolbert (who ranks #16 as a FB and who sees almost as much action as Stewart) has a rating of 76.1. Conclusion: In the receiving game, Carolina is strongest at TE and either back coming out of the backfield. None of their receivers can be considered in the "elite" catergory but Cotchery (ranked #30 among NFL receivers) provides a veteran presence and former Card Ginn (when his hands are right) is a constant home run threat.
On the OL, Kalil ranks #7 among all NFL centers with a pass-block rating of 72.8. Norwell (80.7 pass blocking rating) and Turner (86.9) rank #6 and #7 as guards. At tackle, Oher and Remmers rank #32 and #40 respectively with pass block ratings of 85.2 and 58.4. Conclusion: This is a very solid pass blocking unit with a possible point of vulnerability at RT.
Strength of the Cardinal pass defense is its secondary. Jefferson and R Johnson have been solid deep (with Swearinger a solid backup). Peterson is a top ranked CB. Bethel is still a work in progress - at a point where he follows up every good play with one that isn't so good. Powers (who adds a bit of intellect to the secondary) provides additional physicality and, if necessary can fill in at CB. But, as of now, he seems to have found a home in the slot.
Jim Bettcher's defensive approach appears to be to mix & match players, positions and roles and to "attack from all angles." (If you view things from this perspective, moving Bucannon into a hybrid S/LB role makes a lot of sense. The presence of Golden and emergence of Freeny have added some juice to the Cardinal pass rush, but this game may be more of maintaining composure, containing Newton, getting hands up in the passing lanes and making sure Olsen and the RB's are covered. (Wildassed Question: Would it make sense to have Peterson cover Olsen since Olsen is their best "receiver"?
Key Matchups: Peterson vs Olsen?. Freeney or Babin vs. Remmers or Oher. Three Card corners vs. 3 Panther receivers (Cotchery, P Brown, Ginn. Campbell, Gunter, Rucker vs. Kalil, Norwell, Turner
Matchup: Panther Rushing Attack vs. Cardinal Run Defense
The return of Jonathan Stewart (#5th ranked NFL running back) has brought back explosion and toughness to the Panther running attack. Stewart is rated 85.2 as a runner. But Carolina has another running threat in its starting lineup. His name is Cam Newton - and not just as a scrambler; many of Newton's runs are designed runs. Conclusion: To beat Carolina, we'll have to stop Stuart and contain Newton
Panther run blockers are elite inside - led by Kalil (84.8 rating), Norwell (88.6) and Turner (84.6). At OT, Oher (26.6) slips badly. Remmers 67.8) is just "OK." Judging by Olsen's (34.8 run block rating), you might want to condider him more of a tall receiver than a true TE. Conclusion: We'd better meet or exceed Carolina's toughness at the point; especially up the middle.
Following BA's "wishbone" analogy, we'll probably want to assign a LB (Bucannon?) to Cam Newton and a run-stopping safety (like Swearinger?) to contain Stewart. Cards have been successful in the past, shooting in a blitzer (Golden or even Freeny?) to blow up zone-read handoffs before they take place in the backfield. Unlike last week (when BA activated lighter, speedier defenders in the mistaken belief that GB would use speed to attack our flank), this may be the week when we add a little heft to bottle up Stewart inside. More depth at DT (i.e. X Williams?) would seem to make sense. This also may the week where we don't match any one CB with any single receiver but instead disguise our coverages and change assignments from down to down. Closing Question of the Week: Are we going to see more of our latest pickup Jason Babin?
Key Matchups: Peterson, Bethel and Powers vs. Brown, Cotchery and Ginn. Newton. Swearinger/Minter vs. Stewart. Jefferson vs. Olsen. Cardinal D-line rotation (most notably Campbell, Gunter and Rucker) vs. Kalil, Norwell, Turner
WR1 11 Fitzgerald..13 Jar Brown......10 Golden
LT 68 Veldheer....79 Sowell
LG 76 Iupati.........61Cooper
C 63 Sendlein....53 Shipley
RG 62 Larsen
RT 70 Massie.......74 Humphreys
TE 85 Fells...........87 Niklas
WR2 15 M. Floyd.....12 John Brown...14 Nelson
QB 03 Palmer........05 Stanton.........09 Barkley
RB 38 Ellington.....27 C Johnson....30 Taylor............33 K Williams
TE 84 Gresham
LDE......95 C Johnson.....94 Ealy
LDT.......98 Lotoleilei......93 .Love
RDT......99 Short.............92 D Edwards
RDE.....69 J Allen...........91 Delaire
SLB.....54 S Thompson..56 Klein
MLB....59 Keuchly..........53 B Jacobs
WLB....58 T Davis
LCB ....27 McClain........26 Finnegan
RCB....24 Norman.........21 T Williams
SS ....41 Harper...........29 Marlowe
FS.......20 K Coleman....33 Boston......42 C Jones
Matchup: Cardinal Passing Attack vs. Packer Pass Defense
Carolina is one of a handful of teams who (despite depletion due to injury) are solid at both CB's. Norman ranks #15 overall among NFL corners. All Finnegan does is make plays. In covereage Norman enjoys an 87.1 rating. Finnegan is rated 74.6. Starting safeties Coleman (74.6 ) and Harper (76.0) are also solid in coverage. Conclusion - 3 or 4 of our guys match up deeper than 3 or 4 of their guys.
Carolina is deep in interior and edge linemen and the stats suggest that they all see plenty of action in rotarion. Kawann Short is ranked #7 among all NFL interior D-linemen. He has a 90.1 rating as a pass rush. His linemates (Lotoleilei, Love and Edwards) are OK but less impressive as playmakers. Off the edge, J Allen broke a bone in his foot and is doubtful for Sunday. Linemates C Johnson, Addison and Ealy all rate in the 70's as pass rushers and overall.
The strength of Carolina's pass defense is their LB's. LB, Keuchli (ranked #1 of all linebackers) has an insane (99.7) rating in coverage. Thompson (78.4) ranks #18 overall. Davis (87.4) picks up the rear with an overall ranking of #25. Thompson (74.9) and Davis (80.4) are pretty good blitzers as well. And we haven't even gotten to the DL yet.
Key is for Palmer to quickly find and hit the open man. (If they sick Norman on Fitz, target Floyd. If they focus on Floyd, find and fit Fitz. If they pay extra attention to Fitz and Floyd, locate and throw to Smokey Brown or, even the other Brown (Jaron)).
Conclusion: Whether successful or not, we have to occupy Carolina's front seven with at least the threat of the run. Outside of that, the CW would be for Palmer to throw a lot of quick stuff to avoid being crushed. But BA was already critical of Carson for not being aggressive enoug early vs. Green Bay. What to do: If there is any quick-release timing stuff in the play book (where Palmer throws to open spots as deep as possible) this may be the week to turn to it. It also may be a good week to re-visit our TE's (Fells or Gresham) as receivers.
Key Matchups: Iupati, Sendlein and Larsen vs. Short. Fitz, Floyd and Jo Brown vs. Norman, Finnegan and McClain. D Johnson vs. Keuchly or T Davis or Thompson. Carolina LB's vs. Fells or Gresham.
Matchup: Cardinal Running Attack vs. Packer Run Defense
Inside, Short enjoys an 87.4 rating vs. the run. Lotoleilei and Love and have 68.7 - 73.8 ratings. On the edge, Johnson leads his teammates with an 82.3 rating as a run stopper. The loss of Jared Allen (72.4 vs. the run) could hurt the Panteras. Kuechly's (97.9) rating vs. the run is better than elite. Thompson (77.4) is solid. T Davis (33.1) may represent a point of vulnerability. Conclusion: One way to slow down Davis rushing the passer off the weak edge might be to run directly at him.
On the Cardinals' side of the ball. rookie David Johnson has emerged as "the man." This is only partly due to injuries to other Cardinal starting RB's (C Johnson and Ellington). He mixes, size, power, patients and hands. Against GB, his blockers couldn't open any holes for him. One possible reason: Most of our running plays required run blockers to sustain their blocks and for Johnson to excercise a degree of patience. Instead, our blockers couldn't sustain long enough and DJ too often "ran to darkness" and was stopped in the backfield.
Whether successful or not, we have to stick with our run game at least for effect. The added advantage of a strong run game is that it keeps opposing pass rushers honest (& our QB healthy and more productive - since Palmer would have more time to set his feet and find receivers).
Key Matchups: Iupati, Sendlein and Larsen vs. Keuchly and Short. D Johnson vs. T Davis
P 08 Nortman
K 09 Gano
H 08 Nortman
LS 44 Jansen
KR 43 Whittaker
PR 19 Ginn Jr..
K 07 Catanzaro
P 02 Butler
H 02 Butler
LS 82 Leach
KR 31 D Johnson.....10 Golden
PR 21 Peterson
Matchup: Packeer Special Teams vs. Cardinal Special Teams
Beware of Ginn (true, he blows hot or cold, but always has the capability of taking any KR or PR to the house. Nothing special about Panther kick returns (Whittaker is averaging 22.3 ypr). Carolina return coverage teams may represent a point of vulnerability (i/.e. opposing kickoff returners average 8.1 ypr more than do the Panthers).
Card special teams remain OK but not as outstanding as they've been in recent years. Two weeks ago, we got gashed by Seattle, but tightened things up vs. GB. One way to cut down on long opposing KO returns is for Catanzaro to boot everything out of the end zon.
Key matchups: We don't see anything predictably special. (Often great special teams performances - blocked kicks, crunching tackles, big returns etc.) come out of nowhere when you least expect them. This is not to say that special teams play isn't important - you gotta try. Because - to quote the late Branch RIckey - "Luck is the residue of design."
Carolina: This is Ron Rivera's third pro HC gig. He seems to be a low-key down-to-earth guy who has earned the loyalty and support of his players and staff. If you review the Panther statistics, you're left with the impression that his team prevails in most of the unsung blood & guts comparisons: Turnovers. Sacks. Running Yards (both on offense and defense). Panthers did take a bit of heat for allowing their 31 - 0 halftime lead shrink to 7 points in the 2H of the Seattle game, but guess what? They won. Panthers are 16 & 1. Not too shabby.
AZ: Then there's Bruce Arians - who'll challenge you deep early and often. He has an "old school" coaching style but is unafraid of new approaches or to stretch the play-calling envelope. HIs motto: "No risk-it/no biscuit." A fun guy to follow - and he backs it up with solid coaching fundamentals (with a huge staff of teaching-coaches from diverse backgrounds) and a record of proven success. His team let him (and them) down in the second Seattle game. It will be interesting to see how well his team handles the adversity..
Logically, this contest should boil down to Coach Arians throwing caution to the winds while Rivera plays things close to the vest while he waits for the Cards to make a mistake he can leap upon. (Since this is the unpredictable NFL, watch the game unfold in a totally different direction.
This is it: Win or go home. 11 of their guys on the field vs. 11 of our guys. Anything can happen. Can't wait till Sunday. Just hope the pending weekend snow-storm doesn't shut down our electricity and TV reception at game time. This figures to be a terrific football game.