Now, confession time. I am a Washington fan through and through. Have been since my Dad got me into the game ten years ago. However, with my beloved Skins knocked out the playoffs, it’s time to pick one of the four remaining sides I want to win the Super Bowl. This year, it goes to the Cardinals, for two reasons. One, they have never won a Super Bowl and they have played some incredible football this season in all three aspects of the game. Two, having Carson Palmer, Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd throughout the year, plus David Johnson at playoff time, meant I won my fantasy league. So, I’m cheering for the Cardinals this weekend and hopefully in two weeks time too. Here’s how they go into Carolina and win:
Somehow find a way to keep Greg Olsen out of the game
Cam Newton to Greg Olsen has been one of the most consistent things to see, hear or read about in the NFL this year. He had 77 catches for 1,004 yards and seven TDs. Only Gronk had more as a tight end. As Bruce Arians said at a press conference on Wednesday, if they can find a way to neutralise Greg Olsen, that’s about 40% of their passing game gone. Make no mistake, Carolina’s wideouts are average, but Olsen is the main guy. Tyrann Mathieu v Greg Olsen would have been the matchup to watch had Mathieu been healthy, but this is where someone else is going to have step up and do the business. Yes, the Panthers run game is a danger, gaining the second most yards in the league, however the Cardinals were 6th in the league at stopping teams gaining yards on the ground. Take away Olsen, and the Panthers passing game, and to a certain extent their offense, does look a bit vulnerable.
Get their own running game going
Arizona’s offense scored the most points in the regular season by a distance and also gained the most yards on offense. Most of it, granted has come through the air due to Carson Palmer, definitely a contender for comeback player of the year, having an absolutely incredible season, but the ground attack gained close to 2000 yards this season, ranking inside the top 10 overall. David Johnson has been one of the breakout stars this year, and no, I’m not just saying that because he basically won my semi-final for me with that game against Philadelphia. Even before Andre Ellington and CJ2K went down with injuries, he was making some incredible plays on the special teams. The Panthers had the 4th best defense this season in stopping the run, but if the Cardinals run blockers can win the battle up front and get Palmer into manageable third down situations, it could be an easier night for the veteran to unleash the weapons in the passing attack.
Carson Palmer having confidence
If you had not seen the game at all, Palmer’s stat line last week would look very solid indeed: 25 of 41, 349 yards, 3 TDs and 2 INTs. However, of those 349 yards, just 74 came in the first half, and did toss two interceptions in the game to a Green Bay defense who were the 15th best defense in the league this year. Palmer put his poor first half down to nerves and “wanting it so bad,” but against the team with the best record in football, he can’t afford to start slowly on Sunday. The Panthers can get ahead big in a game and although they might let you back into the game, they very rarely let you come back and win. They’re not 16-1 for no reason. If the Cardinals really feel they can win the game, Palmer, dodgy thumb and all, has to be able to find his receivers and get the ball to them constantly throughout the game. Speaking of which… Matchup to watch- Larry Fitzgerald vs Josh Norman While the Cardinals have several offensive weapons, and it will be a cross-unit effort from the back end of the Panthers’ D to try and neturalise them, for sheer entertainment this has to be the most anticipated matchup of the game. Josh Norman has easily had the best season of his career, winning PFWA’s most-improved award (in a tie with Kirk Cousins), being voted to his first Pro Bowl and being named to the All-Pro first team for the first time. On the other side of the field is a hugely rejuvenated Larry Fitzgerald, putting together his first 1000+ receivning yard campaign since 2011, and his first 100+ reception season since 2007. Fitzgerald proved he can still be as dangerous as any player on the field with his jaw-dropping 75-yard ankle breaking run in overtime last week, not to mention the game-winning five yard TD on a shovel pass two plays later. With one of the most dynamic young corners squaring off against a once-elite veteran in full renaissance, there’s no question as to where the best football will be happening on the field. To summarise, a lot has to go right, make no mistake, for the Cardinals to leave Carolina with the George Halas trophy and moving on to Super Bowl 50. If the Cardinals offense can move the ball little and often, working the clock with long drives and taking the ball out of the hands of the MVP this season, Cam Newton, their defense will continue to be fresh and will have the best opportunities to keep Carolina from scoring lots of points. Only the Falcons have kept them from scoring 20 points or less, Carolina’s only loss of the season. The Cardinals will have to play out of their skins to win the game, but as always in the NFL, a shock result can come, Any. Given. Sunday.