FOX Sports Senior NFL Writer Alex Marvez lists five keys for Sunday’s NFC championship game between Arizona and Carolina at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, N.C.
ARIZONA RUN DEFENSE VS. CAROLINA RUSHING ATTACK
The Panthers received good news when learning that running back Jonathan Stewart didn’t reinjure his foot but instead twisted his ankle in last Sunday’s 31-24 victory over Seattle. Stewart gritted his way through for 106 yards and two touchdowns on 19 carries. Before the ankle issue, Stewart busted a 59-yard run on the game’s opening play highlighted by left guard Andrew Norwell blocking three Seahawks defenders to pave the way. Stewart isn’t the only threat to the NFL’s No. 2 rushing attack as the Cardinals also must account for dual-threat quarterback Cam Newton.
Arizona was gouged by Green Bay in last Saturday’s 26-20 overtime victory. The Cardinals surrendered an average of 6.1 yards on 22 carries, which is more than two yards above their regular-season average. However, Panthers offensive coordinator Mike Shula warned not to use one game as a measuring stick for Arizona’s run-stuffing prowess. "They get a lot of guys around the ball," Shula said Monday. "They’re good tacklers. Their linebackers are downhill players. And they are very aggressive."
ARIZONA OFFENSIVE LINE VS. CAROLINA PASS RUSH
Carolina’s defensive linemen were the unsung heroes in the win over Seattle. The first-quarter interception that Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly returned for a touchdown happened because Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson was harassed by defensive tackle Kawann Short. Short’s 10-yard sack then defused Seattle’s second possession while end Mario Addison forced Wilson’s second interception in the second quarter with his pressure. With the Panthers leading 31-0 before halftime, Seattle running back Marshawn Lynch (six carries for 20 yards) became a non-factor. Arizona rushed for only 40 yards on 19 carries against Green Bay and surrendered three sacks but this unit was a Cardinals strength for much of the season.
CAROLINA SECONDARY VS. ARIZONA WR LARRY FITZGERALD
The Hall of Fame resume grew for Fitzgerald against the Packers. He caught eight passes for 176 yards, highlighted by a 75-yard catch to set up his game-winning touchdown grab. After three years without a 1,000-yard season, Fitzgerald returned to prominence in 2015 with a career-best 109 receptions for 1,215 yards and nine touchdowns. His run-blocking also is among the best of any NFL wide receivers. Fitzgerald has flourished since being utilized more in the slot.
"You’ve really just got to locate where he is and then from there try and figure out what they’re trying to do with him, whether they want him to work underneath or go vertical," Panthers head coach Ron Rivera said. "[Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians] will have a plan to attack us the way he thinks is best. He’ll look for matchups and stuff like that." Arians may try to get Fitzgerald away from being covered by Panthers standout cornerback Josh Norman in favor of Robert McClain or Cortland Finnegan, both of whom were thrust into prominent roles because of season-ending injuries to Peanut Tillman and Bene Benwikere.
Carolina’s first chance to host an NFC title game has made Sunday’s tilt the most highly anticipated home contest in franchise history since its 1995 debut. The 7,000 remaining tickets made available to the public last Sunday night were sold out in three minutes. Such rabid support means another boost for the Panthers with crowd noise that could be even louder than the Seahawks game where the Bank of America press box swayed from a sonic outburst.
A playing surface slower than the one Arizona is accustomed to at the University of Phoenix Stadium also may benefit Carolina because the Cardinals rely more on speed and the deep pass. The Panthers’ field was re-sodded three times during the season. This has created a "soft" turf — or a "lousy" one, according to Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll during a Monday radio interview on 710 ESPN in Seattle — that caused slippage during last Sunday’s game.
CAM NEWTON VS. CARSON PALMER
Remarkably, this is the first time Heisman Trophy-winning quarterbacks have squared off against each other in a conference title game. Palmer, who captured the honor in 2002, needs a better all-around performance against the Panthers than the one he had against Green Bay. Newton’s strength against Seattle was efficiency. Newton, the 2010 Heisman winner, completed 72.7 percent of his passes (16 of 22) for 161 yards and one touchdown without committing a turnover. That’s something to dab about.