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Less Sizzle, But Panthers Rematch Still Important

Reigning NFC Title game participants need a win after slow starts

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Cardinals safety Tony Jefferson (right) tackles Panthers tight end Greg Olsen in last year's NFC Championship game.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The Cardinals and Panthers are certainly not as bad as their records suggest.

They are also running out of time to bear fruit.

The reigning NFC Championship game combatants face off on Sunday in a long-awaited rematch – but now it's not about staking their claim atop the NFC but simply attempting to get back in the playoff race.

"We need a win," quarterback Carson Palmer said. "They need a win."

The Cardinals (3-3-1) were better than the Seahawks last week but the game ended in a bizarre 6-6 tie, which kept them from moving above .500 for the first time this season. The Panthers are 1-5 coming out of their bye, as they have lost several close games and quarterback Cam Newton has dealt with injuries for much of the season.

Still, it's not out of the question to see one of these teams shake the early funk and get hot.

"They're not losing by 14-plus points," cornerback Patrick Peterson said. "Same thing with us. We're just not making those plays we made last year down the stretch. I believe we kind of found our groove, kind of found our identity again the last couple weeks. Those guys are still searching for it. They still have the same personnel as last year. Cam Newton is still Cam Newton. (Jonathan) Stewart is just getting healthy. Greg Olsen is always been a problem. We definitely have our hands full. This is definitely not a 1-5 team. They're a very talented football team."

The Panthers are rested and playing at home, while the Cardinals flew cross-country following an overtime slugfest against Seattle which left them battered. Coach Bruce Arians held a light practice on Wednesday because the players still weren't recovered, and the toll remains on his mind.

"When you have that many plays and play that long, it's going to carry over," Arians said. "Substitutions are going to be critical in this ballgame."

For the past three contests, the Cardinals offense has relied heavily on running back David Johnson and the ground game. It's been a surprising switch, since Arians' no-risk-it-no-biscuit philosophy has always included plenty of chunk plays.

The Panthers are young in the secondary and have had trouble stopping good opposing quarterbacks. Palmer was elite in 2015 but has yet to reach that status in 2016, and it will be interesting to see if he tests a group which clearly misses star cornerback Josh Norman.

Palmer said he's tried hard to be more picky with his deep throws this season, not wanting to risk a turnover, but Arians doesn't want them to go away completely.

"Just keep throwing them and we'll hit them," Arians said.

The Cardinals' defense has been the catalyst in the team's improvement since a 1-3 start, and has allowed only nine combined points the past two weeks against the Jets and the Seahawks.

The big issue in last year's 49-15 loss to Carolina in the NFC Championship game was its inability to get pressure. Markus Golden (6) and Chandler Jones (5) have combined for 11 sacks this season and the pass rush is "light years" ahead of where it was in that game, Arians said.

Newton hasn't played up to the MVP standard he set in 2015, but is still dangerous through the air and on the ground. Forcing him to make quick decisions and seems essential.

"We've got to get back there and be disruptive," Golden said.

This expected clash of the titans has lost some sizzle, but the season hasn't yet hit its midway point. The NFL has myriad examples of teams which have started slowly and roared down the stretch.

The Cardinals and Panthers have that capability, but only one can set the arrow forward on Sunday.

"They've still got the same players, and they're still a good football team," safety D.J. Swearinger said. "They've just got to find their chemistry. And we've got to do a good job of not letting them find their chemistry on us."

Images of key players for this week's opponent, the Carolina Panthers



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