It’s time for the 2016 NFC championship game, and we get to see the two top teams from the conference square off for a chance to play in the upcoming Super Bowl. It’s the veteran Carson Palmer and his Arizona Cardinals (14-3) against the younger, MVP candidate Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers (16-1).
With so many playmakers on both teams, and talent across the board, it’s going to be interesting to check out the keys to victory for both sides. Let’s get right to it with what each team will need to do in order to earn their way to the Super Bowl.
Here are three keys to the game for both the Cardinals and the Panthers.
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1. Go where Josh Norman is not
As well as Norman has played at cornerback this season, moving into the league’s top echelon, Cardinals coach Bruce Arians and quarterback Carson Palmer will not shy away from taking a few shots his way. However, few teams are better suited than Arizona at exploiting both sides of the field. Michael Floyd racked up five 100-yard games since Nov. 1 and speedster John Brown joined Larry Fitzgerald by surpassing 1,000 receiving yards.
2. Blanket Greg Olsen
Olsen is target No. 1 and No. 1A in Carolina’s passing game, so it’s no secret where the Cardinals’ defense will be looking. Tyrann Mathieu’s injury is a big loss here, but Jerraud Powers has moved into his role and should get help from safeties Rashad Johnson and Tony Jefferson. Arizona has the luxury of giving Olsen extra attention because star cornerback Patrick Peterson routinely shuts down his side of the field.
3. Get the running game going
Rookie David Johnson was outstanding in his first three starts since taking over as the lead running back, but he’s been held to a combined 60 yards on 26 carries in his last two games. Johnson still remains a dangerous threat out of the backfield – he had six catches against Green Bay last weekend – but the Cardinals might want to mix in Andre Ellington as a change of pace. That, and use short passes to Fitzgerald to set up the running game.
1. Put your foot on the gas, and don’t let up
The Panthers were up 31-0 at halftime against the Seattle Seahawks in the divisional round, but went into cruise control mode after that. They were outscored 24-0 in the second half and held on to win 31-24. They can’t allow something similar to happen against the Cardinals, who have one of the most electrifying offenses in the NFL. If the Panthers get an early lead, they need to focus on continuing to grow that lead and lighting up the scoreboard.
2. Utilize running backs in the passing game
The Cardinals have allowed 77 receptions for 740 yards and three touchdowns to opposing running backs this season, showing that they can be beaten out of the backfield. Whether it’s Jonathan Stewart, Cameron Artis-Payne or Mike Tolbert, Newton should look to get the ball into the hands of his backfield mates in this game. Not only could it result in some big plays, but it also has the potential to open up the field for both the run game and the passing game to the wide receivers and tight ends.
3. The Devin Funchess show
While the Cardinals may wind up putting Peterson on Ted Ginn Jr. due to his speed, and there will be extra help sent to cover Olsen, that leaves the young and talented Funchess to make some big plays for Carolina in the passing game. We’ve seen that Funchess is more than capable of stepping up big, as he caught seven balls for 120 yards and a score in the regular season finale against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. This game has Funchess’ name written all over it.