Cardinals vs Panthers: the key matchups

Carolina Panthers head coach Ron Rivera, top, watches his team during the NFL football team's practice in advance of the NFC Championship game against the Arizona Cardinals in Charlotte, N.C., Thursday, Jan. 21, 2016. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)
AP

Matchups for the NFC championship game Sunday between the Arizona Cardinals and Carolina Panthers:

When the Cardinals (14-3) have the ball

QB Carson Palmer (3) has had perhaps the best season of his 13-year career and is in the conversation for league MVP. But he comes off a mediocre performance against Green Bay in which his decision making came into question. Perhaps he was nervous because he'd never won a playoff game.

Now that he has, Palmer might go back to being the passer who can withstand the heavy pass rush he will get from DT Kawann Short (99) and DE Mario Addison (97), and the pressure All-Pro LBs Luke Kuechly (59) and Thomas Davis (58) can supply. Few teams have as versatile or deep a front seven; Carolina had five sacks against Seattle.

When Palmer gets time, he'll first look, of course, for Larry Fitzgerald (11), who comes off a sensational game against the Packers. All-Pro CB Josh Norman (24) is likely to get most of the coverage assignments against Fitzgerald, and that will be a highlight matchup Sunday.

But Arizona has ways of getting Fitz free, particularly by lining him up in the slot. The rest of the Panthers' secondary, other than ball-hawking safety Kurt Coleman (20), let Seattle's receivers have too much room to roam. With Fitzgerald, Michael Floyd (15) and John Brown (12), that's a recipe for defeat.

The running game is more problematic. Arizona ranked eighth and used three feature backs. The only healthy one is rookie David Johnson (31), who is versatile – eight TDs rushing, four as a receiver – and can break a big play. Kuechly, Davis and the strong D-line will challenge Johnson.

For both squads, the work in the trenches will be a key, and Carolina appears to have the edge there.

When the Panthers (16-1) have the ball:

QB Cam Newton (1) was involved in 45 touchdowns during the season, and he must be accounted for first and foremost by Arizona. Newton didn't do much as a runner last week because he didn't have to as RB Jonathan Stewart (28) set the tempo with his 59-yard burst on the first snap. But Newton can control a defense with his size, strength, speed and savvy as both a passer and runner.

That means Arizona LBs Deone Bucannon (20), who's really a hybrid safety, and Kevin Minter (51) will be charged with neutralizing one of the NFL's most dynamic weapons.

The Cardinals need to keep Newton in the pocket while forcing him to throw before he wants to. That's mainly the job of Calais Campbell (93) and Dwight Freeney (54), a pair of solid and wise veterans. But getting a surge up the middle is extremely difficult against All-Pro center Ryan Kalil (67) and RG Trai Turner (70).

One intriguing thought is Arizona possibly sticking All-Pro CB Patrick Peterson (21) on the Panthers' best receiving threat, TE Greg Olsen (88). Carolina has a steady veteran in WR Jerricho Cotchery (82), and inconsistent Ted Ginn Jr. (19) has had his best season. But Olsen is the guy.

Arizona likely will bring the blitz against Carolina. Why not? The Cardinals do it against everyone, even in ''Hail Mary situations.'' Although they lost All-Pro S Tyrann Mathieu to a torn-up knee, they feel comfortable with Tony Jefferson (22) and Rashad Johnson (26).

Special Teams

Each team has potential game breakers here. Ginn averaged 10.3 yards on punt returns and Peterson 8.1. Davis Johnson broke a 108-yard kickoff return for a TD, but Arizona had to be careful in using him considering his importance in the backfield.

Carolina's Graham Gano (9) finished second in points with 146, but isn't great from long range. Arizona K Chandler Catanzaro (7) didn't have nearly as strong a second pro season, even missing five extra points; Gano missed three.

Neither punter, Brad Nortman (8) for the Panthers and Drew Butler (2) for the Cardinals stood out, and each team's coverage units need improvement.

Coaching

Arizona's Bruce Arians won AP Coach of the Year in 2012 as an interim in Indianapolis, then last season for the Cardinals. In between, Ron Rivera won it in Carolina.

Both have done extraordinary work this season, too. The Panthers lost their top wideout, Kelvin Benjamin, in training camp, yet their passing game has been strong and they led the league with 500 points. Rivera has coaxed the maximum out of so many players on the roster, from the All-Pros such as Newton, Mike Tolbert (35), Kalil and Norman to the likes of Coleman and Ginn.

Arians lost his top two RBs. His offensive line has been a jumble and the tight end position is weak. Palmer was returning from yet another major injury. The defense seemed mediocre at linebacker.

Yet he's fashioned the most balanced team in the league.

Intangibles

Surprisingly, the Panthers, considered a youngish team, have a slew of over-30 players seeking their first title. They also are driven by what they perceive as a lack of respect for their special regular season; remember, they were 14-0. They have won 12 straight at home.

The Cardinals believe if they hadn't been ravaged by injuries last January, they would have won the conference crown. They, too, have a bunch of older players looking for that first ring.

And there's no fear in Arians' team, which is 7-1 on the road.

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