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The Carolina Panthers extended their winning streak to five, defeating the Arizona Cardinals 27-16 on a wet Saturday afternoon in Charlotte. The Panthers dismantled the Cardinals, setting an NFL record for fewest yards allowed (78) in a postseason game.
Quarterback Cam Newton completed 18-of-32 passes for 198 yards and two touchdowns, while running back Jonathan Stewart rushed for 123 yards and a touchdown on 23 carries. Stewart’s late-season surge continues to be a big part as to why the Panthers are winning. He has now rushed for 609 yards in his last five games.
The defense was the story on Saturday, though.
Led by linebacker Luke Kuechly, they stymied Arizona’s passing and running attacks. Bruce Arians, who prides himself on his big-play passing game, was unable to generate the explosive plays his offense needed to keep pace with Carolina. In fact, both of Arizona’s touchdowns were set up by Carolina turnovers.
Quarterback Ryan Lindley completed 16-of-28 passes for 82 yards. That’s a pitiful 5.1 yards per completion. He took four sacks on the afternoon and threw a pair of interceptions. The most devastating one came in the fourth quarter.
Down 27-14, Arizona linebacker Sam Acho knocked the ball loose from Newton’s grip just before his arm came forward. Rashad Johnson recovered the live ball, returning it to Carolina’s 12-yard line.
On the next play, however, linebacker Luke Kuechly intercepted Lindley's pass intended for receiver Larry Fitzgerald. Kuechly, who also finished the game with 10 tackles, recognized the play immediately. The turnover all but ended Arizona’s season, as players began to realize the writing on the all.
Carolina went into clock-killing mode, running the ball on 11 of their final 12 plays. They gave the Cardinals a late safety with less than 10 seconds remaining, cutting their lead to 11.
The victory sends the Panthers to the divisional round for the second consecutive season, where they’ll meet the Seattle Seahawks or the Green Bay Packers. The Panthers played the top seeds in the NFC on back-to-back weekends in October, losing both games. The losses marked the beginning of their six-game losing streak. A losing streak that feels as if it were ages ago.
The Panthers are peaking at the right time. A resurgent running game leads the offense, and their defense has allowed one 300-yard passer in their last five games.
They will be significant underdogs regardless of whom they play next week. Yet, they’ve demonstrated enough toughness that neither Seattle nor Green Bay should take them lightly.
With a couple of breaks going their way, they may have found the formula to shock the world.