The Cardinals and Panthers faced off in an NFC Wild Card game a season ago, but both teams are better this time around.
The Cardinals have advanced to the NFC Championship game, where they will match up against the top-seeded Panthers. The winner will face either the Patriots or Broncos in Super Bowl 50. Carolina went undefeated through the first 14 games of the season before finally falling to the Falcons, and finished 15-1. The Panthers had a huge first half against the Seahawks in the NFC Divisional Round and then held on for a 31-24 victory. The main knock on the Panthers was a soft regular season schedule, but they looked impressive against the two-time defending NFC champions in their first playoff game. Here is a look at Carolina heading into Sunday's titanic showdown:
Season record: 16-1
Panthers on offense: The Panthers were only 11th in total offense but took advantage of their opportunities, leading the league in scoring at 31.3 points per game. Their rushing attack accumulated 142.6 yards per game, which was the second-most in the NFL behind the Bills. Running back Jonathan Stewart missed the last three games of the regular season with a foot injury but had 19 carries for 108 yards and two touchdowns against Seattle. Quarterback Cam Newton is the likely MVP after finishing the regular season with 3,837 yards passing, 636 yards rushing and 45 total touchdowns. Newton's passing has substantially improved, and his combination of size and mobility can give defenses headaches. Keeping Newton in the pocket – while easier said than done – is the goal of every opponent. The Panthers' wide receiving corps is below average, but Greg Olsen is one of the top pass-catching tight ends in the league.
Panthers on defense: The Panthers allowed 19.3 points per game in the regular season, sixth in the NFL. They only gave up 88.4 yards per game on the ground, but as Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson showed, they can be susceptible against the pass. While Josh Norman has developed into one of the NFL's best cornerbacks, injuries to Charles Tillman and Bene Benwikere has thinned the secondary. The key for the Cardinals will be giving quarterback Carson Palmer time to throw, because elite defensive tackle Kawann Short (11 sacks) and the rest of the Panthers front was a nuisance throughout last week's game. Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis might be the best linebacker tandem in the league.
Panthers on special teams: Former Cardinals wide receiver Ted Ginn is the punt returner, and while he has blazing speed, he's been average this season (10.3 yards per return). Joe Webb will likely return kicks if Fozzy Whittaker (ankle) can't play. The coverage units remain a concern for the Cardinals. Panthers kicker Graham Gano was 30-of-36 on field goals in the regular season and hit 95 percent of his extra-point tries. Brad Nortman's 39.8 net punting average was 17th in the NFL.
Injuries to watch:Defensive end Jared Allen suffered a broken bone in his foot against the Seahawks, and there are conflicting reports as to his availability. Whittaker didn't play against the Seahawks. Olsen hurt his shoulder against the Seahawks but returned to the game.
2014 Wild Card rewind:These two teams met in the playoffs last season – a 27-16 Panthers victory -- and both are substantially improved. The Cardinals were down to third-string quarterback Ryan Lindley in that game and set a postseason low-record with only 78 yards of total offense. They had more than that in overtime alone against the Packers on Saturday, and the league's most explosive passing offense will look much better this time around. Carolina's personnel looks similar to last year, but Newton's growth has been key. While he was lucky to throw only one interception last year against the Cardinals, the accuracy he has shown while throwing into tight windows has been a huge plus for the Panthers. While last year's teams were both eliminated by the divisional round, the winner of this game could be the favorite to win the Super Bowl.