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Arizona Cardinals must overcome playoff jitters

By The Sports Xchange   |   Jan. 21, 2016 at 8:50 AM
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Arizona Cardinals-Carolina Panthers: NFC Championship preview

TEMPE, Ariz. -- The Arizona Cardinals think the biggest reason they didn't play well offensively against Green Bay Packers last weekend is that they were too nervous.

And they vow to be much more loose, and as a result more like themselves, when they play the Carolina Panthers for the NFC Championship on Sunday in Charlotte.

Coach Bruce Arians could tell that quarterback Carson Palmer was tight by the types of play Palmer chose to be in the first-half script.

There were more short, safe passes than usual.

Looking back, Palmer could see his error.

"I think just wanting it so bad, maybe too bad, and being too tentative," Palmer said. "That's not my style. That's not our head coach's style.

"This is not a tentative offense and I think being tentative bit us in the butt in the first half, and we came out with a different mindset, and I came out with a different mindset, at halftime."

That might be true. And so could the possibility that Arians is using the whole "we were nervous" thing as a way to get his team ready for this week.

On Monday, Arians opened the week by saying he expects his team to be looser against the Panthers and play just has it has all season.

Some of the players echoed that belief, including Palmer.

"As big as this game is, you can't make it bigger than it is," he said. "This is a regular season game in my mind. It's win or go home. There's a ton of implications behind it, but I'm not studying extra film or taking extra reps at practice.

"We're not doing extra player meetings. We've got a pretty good recipe that wins games. We've been doing it for a long time and we're going to stick with our recipe."

That's straight out of Arians' playbook and other veterans are repeating that message to the younger players: what we've been doing works, or else we wouldn't have finished 13-3 and made it this far.

"I was just telling some guys in there, some younger guys, 'Man, if you eat Burger King every Tuesday, go do it,'" cornerback Jerraud Powers said. "'Don't change what you do on your routine because whatever you've been doing is the reason we're at this point now.'

"If it's anything, I'll say, 'Guys, watch a little bit more film. Do a little bit more preparation-wise, but as far as your routine, do whatever your routine is, because that's why we're at this point.'"

Palmer isn't the only offensive player who struggled last week.

General Manager Steve Keim said that other than receiver Larry Fitzgerald, no one played particularly well on offense.

Improvement needs to start up front. The Cardinals have not run the ball well the last two games, and Palmer faced pressure against the Packers.

The Cardinals' receivers should be able to do some damage against the Panthers secondary if Palmer has time to get them the ball.

"If we're going to want to keep playing, we're going to have to improve our run game," center Lyle Sendlein said. "We see them (the Panthers) as the best defense in the league. Their front seven is something special, so we'll have our challenges."

SERIES HISTORY: 15th all-time meeting and the third post-season matchup. The Panthers lead the all-time series, 9-5, and the teams split the previous two playoff games. They met in the wildcard round last season, with the Panthers winning, 27-16. The Cardinals played that game with third team quarterback, Ryan Lindley. The game was close until late in the third quarter. The Cardinals led 14-13 at halftime, but the Panthers scored twice in the third quarter to put the game away.

GAME PLAN: Offensively, the Cardinals have a distinct advantage with their receivers against the Panthers' defensive backs. The challenge will be giving quarterback Carson Palmer time to take advantage of it. The Cardinals won't abandon the running game, but don't expect them to try to pound away at the Panthers. They are too good against the run, and it doesn't play to the Cardinals' strengths.

On defense, the Cardinals will commit every resource necessary to controlling the run. They have played solid run defense for most of the season, although they have given up some big plays. The play of inside linebacker Deone Bucannon will be vital. He has run responsibilities, which will match him against quarterback Cam Newton. Bucannon also likely will be on tight end Greg Olsen occasionally.

MATCHUPS TO WATCH

--Cardinals WR Larry Fitzgerald vs. Panthers CB Cortland Finnegan.

Fitzgerald lines up in the slot about half the time, and that's where he will face Finnegan the most often. This appears to be a mismatch in Fitzgerald's favor. Finnegan doesn't have much left, and Fitzgerald has proven that he's an even better player in the playoffs.

--Cardinals DT Calais Campbell vs. Panthers LG Andrew Norwell.

Campbell will play across the Panthers' left side, but he will face Norwell most often. Campbell is the Cardinals best defensive lineman and they need him to have a dominant game, especially against the run.

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