When the NFL schedule was released last spring, the Week 8 game between Carolina and Arizona looked like a must-see midseason matchup.
Last season’s NFC Championship Game contestants returned most of their starters and were widely expected to contend for the conference crown again.
How far have they fallen? So much so that FOX moved the NFC title game rematch out of its game of the week spot at 4:25 p.m. to a 1 p.m. kickoff.
“Fox doesn’t think we’re sexy because we’re not 6-0 like we were last year, or we’re not 4-2,” Panthers fullback Mike Tolbert. “It is what it is. We don’t really care. We know what we can do.”
To borrow a line from Justin Timberlake, the Panthers (1-5) and Cardinals (3-3-1) are trying to bring their sexy back.
The Panthers have dropped four in a row after the second Super Bowl appearance in franchise history. They face steep odds to return to the postseason: Only one of 92 teams that started 1-5 since 1990 rebounded to make the playoffs – the Kansas City Chiefs last season.
Arizona had won two in a row and could have run its win streak to three games Sunday night against Seattle, but kicker Chandler Catanzaro missed a 24-yard field goal off the left upright with 3 minutes, 26 seconds left in overtime of a 6-6 tie.
Cardinals coach Bruce Arians was asked if he could have envisioned Carolina and Arizona having four wins between them at this point.
“No way,” Arians said. “No way.”
The candid, fourth-year coach said he still believes Sunday is a measuring-stick game for teams that could still make some noise in the NFC.
“I don’t think there’s any doubt. We’re both very hungry,” Arians said during a conference call with Charlotte reporters. “Nobody’s out of it. But we’ve dug holes that every game is very, very important now.”
Now or never
No 1-6 team has ever recovered to make the playoffs, so it’s now or never for the Panthers.
Carolina showed offensive life in a 41-38 loss at New Orleans on Oct. 16, but problems persist in a secondary that has been decimated by injuries and personnel losses.
Second-round cornerback James Bradberry, one of three corners drafted by general manager Dave Gettleman last spring, remains limited after missing the past two games with turf toe. Journeyman corner Teddy Williams left Wednesday’s practice with a knee injury.
That leaves third-round pick Daryl Worley and Robert McClain as the likely starting corners Sunday against the Carson Palmer-led Cardinals offense.
Arians said the Panthers’ youth at corner shows up on film.
“You didn’t see the deep balls completed on them last year that have happened on the tapes this year,” he said. “Young guys getting hit with double moves. That happens to veterans, too. I think sometimes young guys, they’re pressing so hard the communication can get a little bit screwed up.”
Through six games, the Panthers have given up 15 pass plays of 25 yards or longer, tied for the seventh-most in the league.
They allowed 25 such plays all of last season, the third-fewest explosive pass plays allowed.
“The same cast of characters are there,” Arians said of the Panthers. “They have the same front seven and it’s as good as there is in the league. They have the best inside linebacker in the league (in Luke Kuechly). Obviously they have had some injuries at cornerback, which has hurt them.
“But offensively and defensively, I think they are as sound as they’ve ever been.”
A January blowout
When these teams met in January, the Panthers scored on their first three possessions to jump to a 17-0 first-quarter lead. They never looked back, rolling to the highest point total ever in an NFC title game during their 49-15 victory.
The Panthers forced seven turnovers, including six by Palmer, to overwhelm the Cardinals.
“We didn’t come with our best game that day for some odd reason. First time since (Arians) has been here where the five-star players – none of us showed up,” cornerback Patrick Peterson said. “We definitely want to continue to do whatever we need to do to get to that pinnacle peak again and hopefully we can have a different outcome.”
It’s a long slog for both teams if they hope to meet in the playoffs again this season, but tight end Ed Dickson isn’t yet ready to count the Panthers out.
“It’s the NFL. Every year’s different. We’re not out of it at all,” Dickson said. “It’s funny to think where we are right now because of how good these teams were last year. But pick your head up at the end of the season, I guarantee you we’re going to be in a different spot than we are right now.”