Conference Championship Features Two Pro Bowl Quarterbacks

21Jan16

This year’s championship game will be featuring two of the best quarterbacks in the league squaring off against each other, with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line. It should be a great game.

Oh yeah, Brady and Manning will face off again in the other conference’s final. Yawn!!

That’s right folks, the game I’m excited about will be played out in Charlotte, where Carson Palmer’s Arizona Cardinals will be taking on Cam Newton’s Carolina Panthers. With the game featuring two of the finalists of the NFL MVP race, there are sure to be some offensive fireworks.

But the QBs aren’t the only highly anticipated part of this game. The two teams feature a couple of the best defensive units as well, although their respective strengths are definitely different.

The Cardinals defense starts with their secondary, one of the best shut down units in the league. With Patrick Peterson personally shutting down every single #1 receiver he’s faced this season, the rest of the DBs are freed up to be creative with their schemes, whether that means double teaming the next best receiver, playing a zone or coming strong with one of their many blitz packages.

Although the Panthers have a stud cornerback of their own in Josh Norman, their strength is not in the secondary, but rather it is up front. Their front seven is perhaps the scariest in the league, featuring all-planet linebacker Luke Kuechly.

Ironically, the key to this game, the one featuring two quarterbacks that are the most prominent names mentioned in all MVP conversations running the top two scoring offenses in the league, will be found on the defensive side of the line of scrimmage. The winner of this game will be the team that is able to contain their opponent’s offensive unit the best.

So what do they have to do to achieve this? Let’s take a look at each team.

The Arizona Cardinals have one the best, if not THE best receiving corps in the league. They’ve got Larry Fitzgerald having the best year of his hall of fame career playing the slot, leaving high flying Michael Floyd and the speedster John Brown to light up the sidelines. With two or three more legitimate wide receivers on the bench and a couple of solid tight ends that can actually catch (hey, Cardinals fans are not used to that), the passing game is not something that can be shut down for four quarters.

When the offensive line works together as a unit, the running game is scary good, with rookie Dave Johnson taking over for the injured veteran Chris Johnson and lighting things up. However, the O-line doesn’t always play up to par, as demonstrated last week against Green Bay. Here is the opening that Carolina needs to take advantage of.

Last week, the Cardinals offense played conservative, which is not the game plan that got them here. Coach Arians and Carson Palmer have both promised to return to true form, which means more downfield passing, which, if successful, would open up the running game. The Panthers have to utilize their strength and put pressure on Palmer from the beginning, not allowing him time to throw deep. Palmer is not the most mobile QB, so if he is forced out of the pocket early and often, Carolina has a good shot to win this thing.

The Carolina Panthers offense starts and ends with Cam Newton. I don’t care how much everyone raves about their running game, it doesn’t happen if Newton is not the multi-threat that he is. I get the fact that Jonathon Stewart is having one of the best seasons of his career, but I’ve had this young man on my fantasy roster several times over the past five or so seasons, only to be ultimately disappointed come crunch time.

Their wide receiving corps, ironically, is led by a guy that couldn’t get on the field while a member of the Cardinals last season. Although he is one of the fastest players in the league, Ted Ginn Jr. has always had trouble hauling in the passes thrown his way. The real threat on this team is tight end Greg Olsen, who has been virtually unstoppable this season.

In order for the Cardinals to stop the Panthers, they need to do two things – stop Olsen and contain Newton. So how do you do that? Who knows. I mean who has been able to do that successfully this season? After all, the Panthers are sporting the best record in the league and have only lost once this year.

In my humble opinion, Arizona needs to shadow Newton with someone like Deone Bucannon, not allowing any double digit runs from the QB. Next, they should put Peterson on Olsen and let the remaining members of the secondary take on Ginn and Devin Funchess. This leaves the task for the remaining six to be containing the running game. Although they are fully capable of racking up the sacks, this front line is more successful when they stop the running game and contain the scrambling QBs.

So which team will be able to pull it off Sunday night? I don’t think we’ll have the answer until about the five-minute mark of the 4th quarter. Both teams will have early success containing the other’s scoring machine. I wouldn’t be surprised to see a low score at the break. But the halftime adjustments on offense will turn on the fireworks in the third quarter.

Who does this projection favor? Well the Panthers are known for early scoring and hanging on for the victory, while the Cardinals tend to start slowly and bring it on after a few possessions are in the bank. I think Arizona will do a better job than most containing Carolina in the first half, and then start the scoring explosion in the third.

Ultimately, I think the better team will win, and that is not the #1 seed. Arizona gets their revenge for last year’s playoff loss in this same stadium, winning an exciting battle 34-27.

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