Wide receivers John Brown (left) and Jaron Brown hope to celebrate a victory in Sunday's NFC Championship game against the Panthers
CHARLOTTE, N.C. – John Brown is usually a deep sleeper, but not lately.
Every night this week, the Cardinals receiver has been jolted awake by a mind that won't stop racing. For more than an hour, he lies in bed and attempts to comprehend the spot his team is in.
Brown bounced around three low-level colleges and nearly gave up football entirely when his half-brother was killed in 2011. Now, he and his teammates are readying for Sunday night's NFC Championship game against the Panthers, one win away from Super Bowl 50.
"One thing that really sticks out to me is, in elementary we had freestyle Fridays," Brown said. "You could write about whatever you wanted to write about. I always wrote about playing in the NFL and playing for a Super Bowl. My teacher used to always get on me, like, 'Hey, you need to pick another subject.' Now I sit back and smile about those things.
"I want it bad. More than I want anything right now."
The Cardinals (14-3) and Panthers (16-1) have been the class of the NFC throughout the season, so it's fitting they are the final two teams standing. All the numbers are impressive, and similar.
The Panthers had the league's top-scoring offense (31.3 points per game) in the regular season, while the Cardinals (30.6) were second. Carolina was sixth in points allowed (19.3) and Arizona was seventh (19.6).
Since the 2007 season, every NFC Championship game has been decided by one score, and four of those games have gone to overtime. While the Panthers are small favorites, most expect another competitive clash.
"It's going to be one of those games where you want to sit back and put your feet up and watch," cornerback Jerraud Powers said.
The Cardinals haven't played up to their potential over the past two games, and a comparable showing would end poorly against such a formidable opponent. But there have also been myriad examples of the team's dominance throughout the regular season, and it's that ceiling which makes this a juicy matchup.
Quarterback Carson Palmer won his first playoff game ever against the Packers last weekend, and Bruce Arians picked up his first as head coach. Arians said everyone may have been feeling the pressure heading into that one, and now the monkey is off their backs.
If the Cardinals felt tight again this week, it wasn't evident. Cornerback Patrick Peterson borrowed a newspaper photographer's camera during the early portion of practice on Thursday and snapped a few photos. There was the standard joking in the locker room.
The Cardinals have rarely been tentative under the confident Arians, and he believes the group will come out with a purpose against Carolina.
"You can see a different football team," Arians said. "It looks like a lot of energy, a lot of focus, maybe not as much apprehension."
The Panthers have a lot of talent on both sides of the ball, but it all starts with quarterback Cam Newton. He's always been a threat with his legs, and a leap in his accuracy has given defenses trouble.
The Cardinals feel confident in their signal-caller. Palmer struggled in the first half against Green Bay but the offense hit its groove late. If he gets enough time in the pocket, the Panthers will have trouble slowing the Cardinals passing game.
There is a lot of attention focused on Palmer, but he is famously low-key and has taken it in stride.
"You can't go in thinking that you have to do something superhuman or something that you haven't been doing or haven't been executing on Sundays all season long," Palmer said. "Obviously it is a little bit bigger, because if you win you keep getting to play football, and if you don't, you don't."
Linebacker Kevin Minter will try to follow that lead, but his nights have mirrored Brown's. Less sleep, more anticipation.
"I want to say it's any other game, but it's the NFC Championship, bro," Minter said. "I just hope it doesn't affect me in a game, as far as being too anxious. Because I swear to God, I'm anxious. I can't wait for this game."
Images from the Cardinals' NFC Championship game win over the Eagles after the 2008 season