Divisional-Round Breakdown: Cardinals at Panthers
Who Has The Edge At...
Kurt Warner finished the regular season as the league's second-leading passer with 4,583 passing yards, 30 touchdowns and 14 interceptions. Warner's solid performance against the Falcons (19-of-32 for 271 yards with two touchdowns and one interception) pushed his postseason record to 6-2, and he has compiled a 92.5 passer rating in those eight playoff starts. Jake Delhomme enters the postseason after completing 59.4 percent of his passes with 15 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. Although those numbers are not impressive on the surface, Delhomme finished with the second-most completions in the league over 25 yards, while guiding the Panthers' 10th-ranked offense.
Running Back: Panthers
The Panthers' DeAngelo Williams finished as the league's third-leading rusher with 1,515 yards and scored a league-high 20 touchdowns. Rookie Jonathan Stewart added 835 rushing yards and 10 scores while averaging 4.5 yards per carry. The Cardinals re-inserted Edgerrin James into the starting lineup as the feature back before the season finale and the veteran responded by averaging 5.8 yards a carry while gaining 173 yards on 30 carries in the two starts. Tim Hightower has 10 rushing touchdowns as the team's goal line back.
Arizona's receiving corps features three 1,000-yard receivers (Anquan Boldin, Larry Fitzgerald and Steve Breaston) who are capable of big plays at any moment. Boldin and Fitzgerald both finished with more than 10 receiving touchdowns, and Breaston added three more scores as the team's third receiver. For Carolina, Pro Bowl wideout Steve Smith topped the 1,000-yard mark for the fourth time in his career while leading the team in receptions (78) and receiving yards (1,421) in only 14 starts. Muhsin Muhammad tallied 956 receiving yards with five scores as the team's second receiver.
Offensive Line: Panthers
Jordan Gross, Travelle Wharton and Jeff Otah anchor an offensive line that surrendered only 20 sacks while helping Panthers' rushers gain over 2,400 yards. The Panthers ran for over 100 yards in 14 of 16 games, including four games with 200 or more yards. Led by right tackle Levi Brown, the Cardinals roll up over 365 yards a game, the fourth-highest total in the league during the regular season. Though the offensive line has been built to protect the passer, the Cardinals' running game has started to show signs of life.
Defensive Line: Panthers
Pro Bowler Julius Peppers had a career-high 14.5 sacks after making the move to right defensive end during the offseason. Charles Johnson and Tyler Brayton also contributed to a pass rush that has recorded 37 sacks on the season. Darnell Dockett spearheads an underrated Arizona defensive line that has helped the Cardinals recover a league-high 17 fumbles.
Jon Beason earned his first Pro Bowl berth after leading the Panthers with 159 tackles and three interceptions. Thomas Davis gives the defense an additional pass rushing threat; he had 3.5 sacks on an assortment of blitzes off the edge. Arizona's Karlos Dansby has quietly developed into one of the best linebackers in the game. In his last 12 starts, the fifth-year pro has tallied eight or more tackles in nine games, while adding three sacks, two interceptions, two fumble recoveries and two forced fumbles.
Defensive Backs: Panthers
Ken Lucas and Chris Gamble man the corners for the Panthers' 16th-ranked pass defense. Though the unit allows 211 passing yards a game, the Panthers are holding opponents to a 59.4 percent completion rate. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie has emerged as the Cardinals' top corner in his first season by amassing four interceptions and a team-high 23 passes defensed in 11 starts. Playmaking safeties Adrian Wilson and Antrel Rolle have helped the Cardinals generate 30 takeaways, fifth-highest in the league.
Special Teams: Panthers
John Kasay and Rhys Lloyd led a Panthers' special teams unit that has been solid throughout the season. Kasay has connected on 28-of-31 field attempts, including 11-of-12 between 40 and 49 yards. Lloyd, the Panthers' kickoff specialist, helped the team consistently win the field position battle by leading the league with 30 touchbacks. The Cardinals' special teams unit has been maddeningly inconsistent all season and hurt the team with a series of miscues (failed fake field goal and missed extra point) in the first matchup between these teams. Though J.J. Arrington is dangerous as a kick returner (25.6 yard average and one touchdown), the Cardinals have gotten little from their punt return game this season.
John Fox guided the Panthers to an unbeaten record at home (8-0) this season and has won his last five games against the Cardinals. Fox sports a 5-2 playoff record heading into this postseason. Ken Whisenhunt led the Cardinals to their first-ever NFC West title in only his second season. Though he has only one postseason victory to his credit, Whisenhunt was the offensive coordinator for the Steelers during their Super Bowl run.
How Carolina Will Win
The Panthers' offense is a tough challenge for the Cardinals due to the combination of a powerful running game and a dangerous receiver. Williams and Stewart helped the Panthers pick up nearly five yards a carry while amassing an average of 152.3 rushing yards per game. With the Cardinals forced to commit an extra defender to the box, Steve Smith should feast off single coverage. He has topped the 100-yard receiving mark in the past three games against the Cardinals, including 117 yards on five receptions with two touchdowns during their matchup earlier this season. The Cardinals didn't have an answer for the Panthers' balanced offense in the first meeting, and it doesn't appear they have a solid solution for dealing with the two-pronged attack in this one either.
How Arizona Will Win
Warner is capable of putting up big numbers on any defense. The two-time league MVP torched the Panthers for 381 yards in the first meeting and missed a couple of opportunities to put more points on the board. The Cardinals' talented trio of receivers has a decided advantage over the Panthers' secondary and could exploit the unit if Warner is given time in the pocket.
Many experts think that this matchup will turn into a lopsided affair in Carolina's favor, but the game will be much closer than anticipated. The Panthers had a tough time slowing the Cardinals down during the first meeting, and Whisenhunt may opt to use the no-huddle earlier to get his team into a flow early. However, the Panthers' defense will eventually force Warner into costly mistakes, and the power running game will eventually wear down the Cardinals in the second half. Look for the Panthers to pull away late. Panthers win 31-21.