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NFL Wild Card Preview: Cardinals vs. Panthers
By Matt Horkman

The first of this weekend’s four games features the No. 4 seed Carolina Panthers (7-8-1) hosting the No. 5 seed Arizona Cardinals (11-5). The Panthers earned the right to host this game when they defeated the Atlanta Falcons 34-3 in week 17 to clinch the NFC South division title.

Running Resurgence

With a 3-8-1 record going into December, not many expected the Panthers to prevail as NFC South champions. Yet they did, thanks to a resurgent running game.

In late November against Minnesota, starting running back DeAngelo Williams fractured a bone in his hand. The injury ended his regular-season. The Panthers replaced him in the lineup with the talented but underachieving Jonathan Stewart. He responded with 486 rushing yards and two touchdowns over the final five games, a performance reminiscent to his 2009 late-season surge that saw him rush for 445 yards in the final three games en route to the only 1,000-yard season of his career.

Williams is set to return to the lineup against Arizona, so there’s talk the Panthers may go with a committee approach for the postseason. It's clear to anyone with a set of eyes that Stewart is head and shoulders the team’s top back. Taking snaps from him after he’s helped get them this far would be a crime, especially since Williams is averaging a pedestrian 3.5 yards per carry. 

Jonathan Stewart

The Cardinals finished a respectable 13th against the run, allowing 108.7 yards per game. In their final two games against Seattle and San Francisco, however, they allowed a combined 473 yards (267 and 206, respectively) on the ground.

They lost both games, blowing their divisional lead to the Seahawks in the process. They could suffer a similar fate in Carolina if they don’t shore up their run defense.

Coach of the Year

Despite losing several marquee players to injury, including the top two quarterbacks on his depth chart, Bruce Arians managed to guide the Cardinals to the playoffs with an 11-5 record.

As with anyone who is great at their profession, Arians has a chip on his shoulder. Throughout the 2000s, thanks to his tenures with the Cleveland Browns and Pittsburgh Steelers, he had one of the most successful résumés in pro football among coordinators. Nevertheless, he always found himself passed over for a head-coaching job.

In 2012, as offensive coordinator of the Indianapolis Colts, Arians filled in on an interim basis for Colts coach Chuck Pagano, who was battling leukemia. He helped lead the Colts to the playoffs, proving he was head coach material. The Cardinals hired him after the season. 

Arians, who won the coach of the year award in 2012 while filling in for Pagano, is in his second season as the Cardinals head coach. He led them to a 10-6 record last season, and had them in position to win the No. 1 seed in the NFC this year. He’s one of the top play callers in the game, rivaling Green Bay’s Mike McCarthy and New Orleans’ Sean Payton.

He’ll need to be at his best this postseason, as the Cardinals have major concerns at quarterback. Starter Carson Palmer tore his ACL in November, ending his season. Backup Drew Stanton did an admirable job, but he went down with a sprained knee in December, leaving Arians with Ryan Lindley behind center. The Cardinals are just 1-4 since Lindley took over the job, making them a very vulnerable wild card team. This isn’t uncharted territory for the Arians, though.

In 2003, as offensive coordinator of the Browns, Arians went into snowy Pittsburgh for a wild card game with Kelly Holcombe as his starting quarterback. The Steelers won that game 36-33, but Holcombe threw for 429 yards and three touchdowns. Let that sink in for a moment. Holcombe, who was filling in for Tim Couch that afternoon, shredded a Bill Cowher led defense for 400-plus passing yards. He did so with Dennis Northcutt, Kevin Johnson, and Andre’ Davis as his top receivers.

It was all possible because of Arians. He knows how to get the most from his players, especially in the passing game.

If anyone can devise a game plan to win in the postseason with Lindley behind center, it is Bruce Arians.

And the Winner is…

The Panthers are returning to the postseason for the second consecutive season. Last year, they bowed out in the divisional round after losing at home 23-10 to San Francisco. That afternoon, they were clearly the less talented team. They'll have a talent advantage against Arizona this Saturday afternoon. Cam Newton is a top-flight quarterback, who is becoming as lethal throwing the ball as he is running it. The defense is also among the most physical in the league. Still, while they have an advantage on the field, they don’t have an advantage on the sidelines.

Coaching matters and its importance increases during postseason football.

There is a reason why Mike Smith is out of a job now, despite leading the Falcons to a pair of 13-win seasons during his seven-year tenure. He wasn’t a very good coach, and certainly not in the same league as McCarthy, Tom Coughlin, and Jim Harbaugh.

All due respect to Carolina‘s Ron Rivera, he isn’t in the same league as Arians as a head coach. Therefore, while the Panthers have a more talented roster than Arizona does, it’s not talented enough to overcome the coaching advantage the Cardinals have.

I don’t trust Rivera to make the right call during crunch time. I trust Arians. 

Cardinals 19 Panthers 17

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