Saturday, January 23, 2016

Your NFC Championship Primer

Calais Campbell and the stingy Cardinals defense will do everything in its power to corral NFL MVP-favorite Cam Newton.
By Jeremy Conlin (@jeremy_conlin) and Joe Parello (@HerewegoJoe)

Our AFC Championship Preview was published earlier today, so there's no need for an introduction here. Let's kick it off.

Arizona at Carolina (6:40 p.m. Sunday, FOX)

Opening Line: Panthers by 3
Current Line: Panthers by 3

By The Numbers:

Record: 13-3 Overall, 7-1 Away; 9-7 Against the Spread; 6-2 Away
Average Score: 30.6 (2nd) - 19.6 (7th)
Average Scoring Margin: +11.0 (2nd); 11.9 "Expected" Wins
DVOA: +15.8% Offense (4th); -15.6% Defense (3rd); -4.0% Special Teams (29th); +27.4% Overall (3rd)

Record: 15-1 Overall; 8-0 Home; 11-5 Against The Spread; 6-2 Home
Average Score: 31.2 (1st) - 19.2 (6th)
Average Scoring Margin: +12.0 (1st); 12.1 "Expected" Wins
DVOA: +9.9% Offense (8th); -18.4% Defense (2nd); -2.4% Special Teams (23rd); +25.9% Overall (4th)

Hidden Points: Generating Pressure

Both of these teams do a great job of protecting their quarterback. The Panthers have surrendered just 33 sacks all season, good for 10th best in football, while the Cardinals have only given up 27 sacks on the year, placing them 6th in the league.

So, finding a way to get to the opposing team's quarterback will be a primary priority for both of these defenses.

Speaking of those defenses, I should say that both of them are very good. Arizona's ranks 5th in the league in total D, just ahead of the Panthers who are 6th. But, when it comes to getting to the QB, the Panthers are far better, piling up 44 sacks this season (6th best in the league), compared to Arizona's 36 (20th best).

That could present a problem for the Cardinals, who love to blitz, but could be exposed if they don't hit home against the mobile Cam Newton. Meanwhile, Carolina has the luxury of generating a rush without sending extra defenders, thanks to defensive tackle Kawann Short, who has racked up 11 sacks on the interior of the Panthers' defensive front.

Make no mistake about it, the Panthers blitz as well, but they don't rely on it. Linebacker Thomas Davis is the only non-defensive lineman on Carolina with multiple sacks, while Short leads a group of six defensive lineman with at least two quarterback takedowns, including up-and-coming defensive ends Mario Addison and Kony Ealy, who accumulated six and five sacks, respectively, this season.

With a more mobile quarterback, and a pass rush that can succeed sending only four defenders, this category would seem to favor the Panthers. But, Arizona should have rush linebacker Markus Golden available for Sunday, and veterans Calais Campbell and Dwight Freeney have been productive rushers in spurts this year.

If they both play well, the script could be flipped in favor of the Cardinals.


Hidden Points: Backfield Productivity

Both starting running backs are dealing with injuries. Jonathan Stewart has the lingering ankle injury, and David Johnson has a banged-up toe.

Stewart's stat line from last week looks fine at first glance - 19 carries for 106 yards - but if you take out the 59-yard gain on their opening drive, that's just 18 carries for 47 yards (2.6 per rush). If you do the same for Carolina's total ground production, it drops from from 144 yards on 41 carries (3.5 per rush) to 85 yards on 40 carries (2.1 per rush). Truth be told, he just wasn't that effective. Johnson, meanwhile, managed just 35 yards on 15 carries, the second straight game he was held in check.

Both offenses feature looks largely predicated on fake handoffs. Arizona would like to run play-action to push the ball downfield, whereas Carolina would like to run zone-read to get Cam Newton on the edge.

Whichever team can establish their ground attack first holds a distinct advantage. Not only do they set up their big-play potential, but eating clock will be immensely valuable in a game featuring the league's two highest-scoring offenses.


Players to Watch (ARI): Jerraud Powers, Justin Bethel

Carolina didn't have to go to the air much last week against Seattle, but they were effective against the Seahawks' Cover 3 coverage when they did. The Cardinals bring a vastly different approach to stopping the pass, as Arizona chooses to play more man coverage, and blitz to get the quarterback off his spot.

While the Arizona front-seven will have its hands full getting to and bringing down Panthers quarterback Cam Newton, the secondary will need to play better than it did last week against Green Bay's walking wounded receiving corps.

Seriously, when Jeff Janis and Jared Abbrederis combine for 200 yards and two touchdowns receiving against you, you might have a problem.

We all know Patrick Peterson is a stud, but behind him the Cardinals' secondary has a huge hole in it, thanks to the loss of star corner Tyran Mathieu for the rest of the year.

In Mathieu's absence, the Cards have turned to Powers on the right side opposite Peterson, and Bethel in the slot. That means these two guys will likely see a ton of Ted Ginn, the oft-maligned receiver who, up until this season, was mostly known as a pretty good kick returner, and savvy vet Jerricho Cotchery.

If Powers and Bethel can body up Ginn and Cotchery (something they couldn't do against the Packers' alternative weapons), then Arizona should be able to clamp down on Carolina, and bring up safety help against the Panthers' feared ground game. If not, it will open up everything Carolina wants to do offensively.


Players to Watch (CAR): Robert McClain, Cortland Finnegan

As we saw last week, you can move the ball on Carolina through the air. Josh Norman is an exceptional cornerback, and Kurt Coleman is one of the better free safeties in the league, but their second and third corners (McClain and Finnegan) surely leave a lot to be desired.

Arizona, meanwhile, has the deepest group of wide receivers in the league. Larry Fitzgerald had his best season in five years, John Brown broke 1,000 yards for the first time, Michael Floyd continued to be a valuable deep threat, J.J. Nelson may be the fastest receiver in the league, and David Johnson and Andre Ellington are always dangerous when split out wide.

Bruce Arians is a master tactician, so there's little doubt that he'll be able to design ways for McClain and Finnegan to be left on an island against someone like Floyd or Brown (it's more difficult to believe a smart defensive coach like Ron Rivera would ever allow Larry Fitzgerald to go anywhere without Josh Norman following him). At first glance, the obvious advantage goes to Arizona there.

If McClain and Finnegan step up and have their best games of the season, Carolina might be able to ball-control their way to a victory like they did last week (Carolina was actually out-gained by over 100 yards, but two Seattle turnovers and an efficient ground game kept them in control). If Floyd, Brown, and whoever else run amok in Carolina's secondary, Arizona could win by 20.


The Picks:

Arizona 31, Carolina 28

Carolina has had a dream season, but the way I see it, Arizona just has too many play makers for Carolina to keep up.

As good as Cam Newton has been, I don't think he'll be able to pick apart Arizona's defense. If Aaron Rodgers can't do it, then Cam Newton can't. Carolina's best hope is to pound the ball on the ground, but their rushing attack was secretly pretty ineffective against Seattle (meanwhile, Arizona is top ten in the league in every relevant rush-defense category).

The weakness of Carolina's defense is their secondary, as outlined above. Most weeks, they're able to hide this weakness with a strong pass rush and the superhuman play of their linebackers. But when they've gone up against vertical passing attacks over the last month of the season (New Orleans, New York Giants, Atlanta), they've struggled to slow down the aerial attacks.

If Carson Palmer finds a groove, there's no reason he can't out-duel Newton. Cam will likely win the MVP, and deservedly so, but Palmer's statistical resume is unimpeachable as well. If Arizona can re-discover their ground game of top of that, they should roll their way into the Super Bowl,


Carolina 28, Arizona 24

Come on, we can't let Cam's historic season end before Super Bowl Sunday, can we? I'm not counting on him methodically picking apart Arizona's defense the way a traditional quarterback would, I'm counting on him making three of four "holy $#it!" plays that turn the game in the Panthers' favor.

And let's be honest, Aaron Rodgers played well enough to beat the Cardinals last week, and that was with a beaten and bruised offense. This Arizona defense is good, but it's not impenetrable without Tyran Mathieu in the secondary.

Carolina's defense, which finished only 1.2 yards per game behind Arizona when Mathieu was healthy, just might be. With the best sideline-to-sideline linebacker in the game (Luke Kuechly), arguably the top cover corner this season (Josh Norman), and the league's most disruptive interior pass rusher (Kawann Short), Carolina has studs at all three levels. Oh, and they're all healthy.

Am I concerned that they don't really have true play makers on offense, outside of Cam Newton and Greg Olsen? A bit, but like he's done all year, Cam is going to make up for it by being Superman.

Also, can I just say that, if you still don't like Cam Newton, outside of being an Alabama or Florida fan (Newton was supposed to be the next Tebow, but was kicked out of school for stealing a laptop), you don't like fun.

Like fun with me this weekend and root for the Panthers.


No comments :