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Arizona Cardinals-Carolina Panthers: Five compelling matchups

By Jeff Reynolds, The Sports Xchange
Arizona Cardinals-Carolina Panthers: Five compelling matchups
Carolina Panthers defensive tackle Dwan Edwards celebrates after the Panthers defeat the Seattle Seahawks 31-24 in a NFC divisional playoff football game at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, North Carolina on January 17, 2016. Photo by Nell Redmond/UPI . | License Photo

In the NFC, the best will be last.

Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton produced 46 total touchdowns and 16 wins. Arizona Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer has 14 wins and 38 touchdown passes.

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Carolina hosts the Cardinals on Sunday in the NFC Championship game for the right to represent the conference in Super Bowl 50 in Santa Clara, Calif.

Two of the NFL's leading Most Valuable Player candidates, Newton and Palmer, have never played in a conference title game. Palmer is 1-2 all-time in the playoffs, winning Saturday in a riveting overtime decision over the Green Bay Packers.

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That matchup rates as a headliner in the meeting of the NFC's top two teams. Here are five other reasons the NFC Championship matchup will be compelling:

1. Cardinals coach Bruce Arians vs. Panthers coach Ron Rivera

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Arians calls plays for the NL's top-ranked offense (408.3 yards per game) and No. 1 passing offense (288.5 yards per game). The Cardinals were also second in scoring (30.8 ppg). Arians explained again Saturday one of his unique and easiest to appreciate character traits. "We play to win," Arians said.

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The Cardinals never let off the throttle. In Saturday's divisional playoff win, the Cardinals called a pass play that stopped the clock inside the red zone and gave the Packers enough time to drive for a game-tying Hail Mary touchdown pass. Arians was unapologetic, and he calls plays much the same way.

Arizona's defense blitzes more than any team in the NFL, and the rugged bunch was fifth overall and sixth against the run this season. Carolina led the NFL in rushing.

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Rivera can appreciate the commitment to man defense. He played for Buddy Ryan and was a member of the Chicago Bears' all-time great 1985 defense. His own cornerbacks play mostly man defense and the Panthers' star middle linebacker -- All-Pro Luke Kuechly -- is the league's best. No linebacker shows more ability to impact the game in coverage than Kuechly. That's important because the Panthers' run defense often forces teams to veer toward their passing offense and Kuechly will lock up rookie running back David Johnson, who had six catches for 42 yards last week.

2. Panthers CB Josh Norman vs. Cardinals WR Larry Fitzgerald

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Fitzgerald turned in a playoff performance to be remembered -- topped by two receptions, a touchdowns and all 80 yards the Cardinals moved in overtime -- and has 117 receptions, 1,489 yards and 12 touchdowns in 17 games this season. Norman was voted All-Pro and had four interceptions in the regular season. He allowed a touchdown pass to Seahawks wide receiver Jermaine Kearse in the divisional playoff game but has thrived in big moments with a fearless persona. Pro Football Focus ranked Norman fourth in pass coverage in 2015 with the second-fewest yards allowed.

If Norman is permitted to track Fitzgerald everywhere, Arians should smile.

Behind Norman, the Panthers are not equipped to hold up against speedy John Brown or Michael Floyd. Cortland Finnegan had an interception of Russell Wilson in the divisional playoff but was easy pickings most of that game. Floyd caught a pair of TD passes against the Packers.

3. Points aplenty

The Cardinals scored 489 points in the regular season owned the third quarter -- 142-62 -- and had a point differential of 176. Carolina's defense allowed 24 points to the Seahawks in the second half last week but that's not the personality of a crew that is ready to throw the first punch. The offense didn't lose its bite on the road, with the Cardinals scoring 48 at Chicago, 42 at Detroit, 34 at Cleveland, 39 at Seattle and 40 at Philadelphia. Arizona was 7-1 on the road.

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The Panthers had a point differential of 192, went over 30 points in the divisional playoff win over Seattle and scored 500 points in the regular season -- 31.3 per game. At home the Panthers averaged 33 points per game and Carolina stomped the competition in the second quarter, 167-51.

4. Strength against Strength

Arians enjoys the accelerator and makes no apologies for it but he also insists running the ball is a key every week. Johnson averaged 2.3 yards per carry with a long of eight yards against the Packers and Andre Ellington still doesn't appear to be healthy. The Panthers were the first team to have a 100-yard rusher -- 106 yards by Jonathan Stewart -- this season against Seattle in Sunday's win. The Panthers ran the ball 526 times this season and averaged 4.3 yards per carry despite personnel limitations. Neither tight end -- Greg Olsen and Ed Dickson -- blocks well and right tackle Michael Oher is a weak link. But between the tackles, the Panthers are dynamic and Newton runs away from most linebackers even at 6-5, 245 pounds. The battle within the battle pits Newton and human anvil Deone Bucannon, whose position on the field is closer to linebacker than his listed safety spot.

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5. Give and take

The Panthers led the NFL with a plus-20 turnover differential, fueled by a league-best 39 takeaways (24 interceptions also led the NFL). Safety Kurt Coleman had seven picks and quietly stood out more for being in the right place than consistently stopping tight ends or backs between the numbers. Only one other team had at least 30 takeaways -- Arizona with 33, including 19 interceptions and 14 forced fumbles.

The Panthers surprise some quarterbacks with their underneath speed. Kuechly returned two interceptions for touchdowns and Norman also had a pair of pick-sixes.

Arizona's top takeaway maker was free safety Tyrann Mathieu, who is out for the season with a knee injury. He led the team with five interceptions. But the Cardinals also had four interception returns for touchdowns and a penalty away from the play cost All-Pro corner Patrick Peterson a 100-yard INT return in Saturday's win over Green Bay.

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