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While everyone is focused on the other conference championship featuring the rivalry of Tom Brady and Peyton Manning, the NFC title game between the Arizona Cardinals and the Carolina Panthers has what it takes to grab the spotlight this Sunday.
The Panthers have been superb defensively all season long, and when that defense is tested by one of the league’s best offenses from the Cardinals, it’s a kind of game that shouldn’t be missed.
The Arizona Cardinals hope to reach their first Super Bowl since the 2008 season. Carson Palmer is completing 61 percent of his passes for 349 yards, three touchdowns and two interceptions. Palmer has six touchdown passes in his last three games. Larry Fitzgerald and John Brown have combined for 258 receiving yards and one touchdown while Michael Floyd has three receptions. The Arizona Cardinals ground game is averaging 40 yards per contest, and David Johnson leads the way with 35 yards on 15 carries. Defensively, Arizona is allowing 20 points and 386 yards per game. Tony Jefferson leads the Cardinals with nine tackles, Dwight Freeney has one sack and Jerraud Powers has two pass deflections.
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The Carolina Panthers look for their first Super Bowl appearance since the 2003 season. Cam Newton is completing 72.7 percent of his passes for 161 yards, one touchdown and zero interceptions. Newton has three touchdown passes in his last three games. Greg Olsen and Jerricho Cotchery have combined for 99 receiving yards and one touchdown while Ed Dickson has two receptions. The Carolina Panthers ground game is averaging 144 yards per contest, and Jonathan Stewart leads the way with 106 yards and two touchdowns. Defensively, Carolina is allowing 24 points and 403 yards per game. Luke Kuechly leads the Panthers with 11 tackles, Josh Norman has a sack and Robert McClain has one pass deflection. Foswhitt Whittaker is questionable and Jared Allen is doubtful.
The Arizona Cardinals struggled to run the ball well against the Green Bay Packers in their playoff game last week. It is fair to ask if they will be able to do anything against Carolina, considering their defense. Center Lyle Sendlein knows they have to do better.
He was asked if Green Bay really stacked the box against them in their game on Saturday. Sendlein said “not really.”
“We should have had a little more success in the run game against Green Bay,” he explained. “We have things in the game plan for when they do stack the box, and we still didn’t execute so it’s something if we want to keep playing, we’ve got to improve our run game.”
And they have themselves a challenge in Carolina, where the Panthers are the league’s fourth-best defense against the rush.
“We see them as the best defense in the league,” Sendlein said. “Their front seven is something special, so we’ll have our challenges this week.”
Head coach Bruce Arians indicated they don’t need to run the ball to take the pressure off the passing game, “because that’s who we are on offense,” but they need to do it more effectively
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