2015 NFL Playoffs: NFC Championship All About The Run Game

Arizona Cardinals’ quarterback Carson Palmer (4,671 yards, 35 TD’s, 104.6% Rating) left a lot to be desired in getting his first career playoff victory last week against the Green Bay Packers. Things don’t get easier against the Carolina Panthers this weekend, either. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)

If you haven’t yet, check out my AFC Championship Game thoughts and prediction, here

Two points. One half.

That’s the reason I’m writing about the Carolina Panthers hosting the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday. Everyone take it easy, no one is saying these two teams aren’t deserving of playing for the NFC Championship and a trip to the Super Bowl in Santa Clara. I’m just pointing out the events from a Divisional Playoff weekend that got us here.

In Arizona’s case it was Green Bay inexplicably not going for two and taking their chances in overtime. That turned out to be the wrong decision, and the Packers began another “what if offseason. For Carolina, things looked like they were going to be much more convincing when they blitzed the Seattle Seahawks for 31 points and a 31-0 halftime lead. Little did everyone watching know that had it not been for that half, the conversation would have been much different. The Seahawks responded with a shutout half of their own, scoring 24 unanswered to close the game but, ultimately, coming up short.

Cam Newton’s 2015 campaign: 15 wins, 4,473 yards of total offense, 45 total touchdowns, and, if I had a vote, the NFL’s Most Valuable Player Award. (Photo: Jeremy Brevard/USA TODAY Sports)

So what we have are two teams in the Cardinals and Panthers that should make for an interesting game. Looking at Carolina first, something the Panthers have to make sure they can establish early is the run. Besides being a strength, I don’t like Carolina’s prospects if Stewart can’t get going the way he did against Seattle. Stewart is my ‘X’ Factor for Carolina because as he goes, so moves the offense without much issue. Against the Seahawks last week, Stewart ran for 84 yards and two touchdowns in the first half, 22 yards and no scores in the second half.

Again, the Panthers were shut out in the second half; that’s not a coincidence.

Newton can make up for a lot, but with the Cardinals secondary likely to focus on Greg Olsen, establishing and maintaining the run on Sunday will be critical if the Panthers want to sustain drives.

Luke Kuechly took an interception back for a touchdown against the Seahawks. He, along with Josh Norman, will look to shut down the Cardinals offense. (Photo: The Sporting News)

Arizona has a different set of issues to deal with.

What I like about the Panthers’ defense that often gets overlooked are the four defensive lineman. Charles Johnson, Star Lotulelei, Kawann Short, and Jared Allen compliment each other perfectly, and sets up everything the Panthers are able to do with Kuechly and his ability to drop back in coverage, Thomas Davis, and A.J. Klein. It’s how you want a 4-3 Base defense to look as far as personnel and their ability.

It’s also what you don’t want to see if you’re the Arizona Cardinals.

The Cardinals three losses this season came at the hands of the Rams, Seahawks, and Steelers. The Rams and Seahawks are similar defensively to the Seahawks and the Steelers (who should consider the 4-3 scheme due to current personnel) take away any threat of the run. Taking away the run and putting pressure on Palmer nullifies play-action passes; that’s important because per Pro Football Focus Palmer, already owning a 64% completion percentage, sees that number increase almost 12% on play-action pass plays this season. David Johnson, the Cardinals running back, was non-existent in the Divisional Round against the Packers and we saw the impact it had on Palmer (two interceptions) and the game (won in OT).

I haven’t mentioned anything about the receivers? Could I point out the obvious and say the Cardinals have better receivers and could pose big problems for the Panthers defense if they get loose? Sure. But it all depends on who gets their ground game going and keeps it going.

My money is on Carolina doing that.

I see this playing out as a game that will see Palmer struggle with the pressure up front and another disappearing act by David Johnson (How long ago does that first Packers meeting feel?). That combination of run/pass is so important to the Cardinals, and like all season I think the Panthers take that away from them and Newton solidifies that MVP talk on Sunday.

Prediction: Panthers 28, Cardinals 17

Thoughts? Let me know about’em! Follow me on Twitter @DACubbage 

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