Arizona Cardinals (14-3) at Carolina Panthers (16-1)
Sunday, 6:15 p.m. ET, at Bank of America Stadium, Charlotte - TV: FOX
Keys to the game: QB Carson Palmer's final stat line looked solid enough in throwing for 349 yards and three touchdowns in Arizona's Divisional Playoff victory over Green Bay Packers. But coach Bruce Arians thought Palmer played tentatively in tossing a pair of interceptions and having multiple others come perilously close to being picked.
In fact, the offense struggled as a whole outside of WR Larry Fitzgerald's instant classic of a performance in hauling in eight passes for 176 yards and almost single-handedly carrying Arizona to the overtime victory with a 75-yard catch-and-run followed by a five-yard touchdown on a shuffle pass.
Beyond the numbers, the offensive line isn't creating many running lanes for rookie RB David Johnson and Palmer was under constant duress. Carolina smacked Seattle in the mouth last week with a dominating push into the backfield between the tackles to create long passing situations. Arizona's system is quite different than Seattle's and the Cardinals' deep receiving corps is one of the biggest mismatches on the field.
But Palmer can only take advantage of the Panthers' depleted secondary if he has manageable distances to work with and time to step up in the pocket. Johnson was targeted nine times last week, and underneath passes should factor in heavily again to complement the ground game.
Carolina doesn't try to hide its offensive blueprint and dares opponents to force a change in tactics.
The Panthers ran on nine of their first 11 offensive snaps last week, using four different ballcarriers to dictate the tempo and own the trenches. Outside of a 61-yard scamper by Eddie Lacy, the Cardinals allowed just 3.5 yards per carry to Green Bay after finishing sixth in rush defense during the regular season. RB Jonathan Stewart sat out practice midweek with a sore ankle but expects to be ready for a full workload Sunday.
It's no surprise Arians has identified TE Greg Olsen as a primary concern. He caught all six passes thrown his way against Seattle for 106 yards and two touchdowns, accounting for 73.6 percent of Newton's passing output. "If we take him out of it, that's about 40-some percent of (the Panthers' pass offense)," said Arians. "That's our goal. That's hard to do though."
ILB Deone Bucannon, one of Arizona's key run defenders, will share the responsibilities of tracking Olsen downfield. Expect CB Patrick Peterson to shadow WR Ted Ginn, the drop-prone speedster Newton loves to take vertical shots to when defenses begin to get super-aggressive in attacking the line.
Matchup to watch - Cardinals WR Michael Floyd vs. Panthers CB Robert McClain: Carolina's kryptonite might prove to be a bunch of street free agents manning the corner spots outside of All-Pro Josh Norman. Whether it's McClain, Cortland Finnegan or anyone else, the Cardinals like the matchup throwing to the 6-4, 235-pound Floyd. Seattle's Jermaine Kearse, who lacks Floyd's size or speed, caught 11 passes for 110 yards and a pair of scores last week.
Player spotlight - Cardinals S Tony Jefferson: With an increased role since the season-ending knee injury suffered by Tyrann Mathieu, Jefferson is coming off one of his best games as a pro. Playing all 73 defensive snaps and another eight on special teams against Green Bay, Jefferson produced a team-high nine tackles, including two for loss, and a pass defensed. The Cardinals' defensive backs are asked to be versatile, and Jefferson's play near the line of scrimmage will be critical in containing Stewart and Newton in the ground game.
Fast facts: Fitzgerald has 10 career playoff TDs, tied for third most in NFL history behind Jerry Rice (22) and John Stallworth (12). ... Sunday will mark the 434th day since Carolina last lost at home. Their 12 straight home wins is the longest such streak in the NFL.
WHO WILL WIN AND WHY
Cardinals QB Carson Palmer won his first career playoff game last week, but he was a dropped pick and a fortunate deflection away from being the goat as he struggled with decision making and accuracy under pressure. Carolina's defense will create plenty of uncomfortable situations. Meanwhile, the Panthers' offense is humming with QB Cam Newton continually showing the ability to move the chains in key third-down situations.
Our pick: Panthers 31-23.