On Sunday afternoon the Carolina Panthers sent a message. They told the whole of the NFL that they are not just a flash in the pan, as they dismantled the Arizona Cardinals with one of the most complete games of football put together by any team this season. This game contrasted greatly with the Broncos vs Patriots game played earlier in the day with some genuinely exciting football occurring as Arizona desperately tried to claw the game back from the dominant Panthers. In the first quarter, the Panthers broke out in the usual style that they have employed for most of this season. Get out early, and break their opponents in the first quarter with some hard hitting offense. The defence switched on early, and shut out the Cardinals completely. Larry Fitzgerald struggled to break free from some tight coverage. By the time that the clock had ticked down, the Panthers had put 17 points on the board. In the second quarter, the Panthers succumbed to their usual problem, of taking the pressure off once you’re ahead. The Cardinals managed to put a ball in the end zone to take 7 points, and put extra pressure on the Carolina defence. The Panthers returned the favour, reminding everyone that they still controlled the game, and practically begging the Cardinals to work harder in the next half. After the half time break, conversations were clearly had with coaches, and decisions were made. This was the half in which the Panthers were going to send a message out to the Broncos. They blasted out of the starting blocks even more than in the first quarter. The Cardinals pushed back with everything they had, and held them to only ten points in the 3rd, but the Panthers shut them out for the second time this game. Now down 27 points, with only 15 minutes of play left, Carson Palmer and his boys had all the work to do. This was starting to look like the Seahawks all over again, but the Seahawks pulled it all back in the last quarter, and nearly pulled off an upset. Could Carson do it? The fourth quarter was where the Cardinals had to pull it all out. The long balls, the risky plays, the aggressive defence, trying to force fumbles. This was what was needed, and this was the only way to beat the Panthers at this stage. Arizona put up 8 out of the 27 points they needed to catch up, and force the game to overtime, like they did with the Packers. To rub salt in the wound, and really send a message for their SuperBowl opponents, Carolina put a further 15 points on the board, and took the final score to 49-15. Carolina are the NFC Champions for 2016, but you can guarantee that the trophy is already on the shelf, as Ron Rivera starts poring over the tapes from the Broncos season. So what happened? The Panthers shut down the Cardinals offense. Holding them to only 1 passing touchdown, and negating most of the receivers. Fitzgerald only caught 4 balls in the whole game. They recorded more sacks, and more forced fumbles from an offense that showed much more discipline against Green Bay only 1 week ago. Carson Palmer struggled against the pressure applied to him and his team by one of the most aggressive defences that they faced all season. Kuechly and Norman filled their normal roles, with Short, Johnson and Love getting sacks on Palmer. Offensively, Cam Newton had the opposite game. With his line and tight ends providing him with plenty of time to make the plays that he needed, Newton looked comfortable and relaxed in the pocket. He was rarely forced into scrambling when it wasn’t the first option, and was allowed the time to find the open receiver. This was ideal for Newton, and he capitalised on the lack of pressure from the Arizona rushers. This could be a different story in February, when they go up against one of the best defences in the whole game. Will his line be able to hold the Broncos off in the same way? Mind games have been a major factor in the dominance that the Panthers have shown this season. Every game played has consisted of the Panthers smashing the first quarter, and putting up as many points as possible. They risk a lot in this methodology, not just injury, but tiring players out early on. The second quarter is always a weaker showing from them as a result of this, but by then they should have the lead. The whole gameplan is built around beating the opposition in their own heads, and then following that up on the field. Come out strong early, and put up major points. Shut them down offensively, and make sure they feel those blocks. Get them on the backfoot, and make them question their own abilities. That’s how they win games, and that’s how they won this one.