Joseph Person’s three things to watch in Sunday’s NFC Championship Game.
Scramble plays could be big for Cam Newton
The Cardinals will come after Newton early and often with the blitz. That’s what they do, and they did it more than any team this season. Arizona will send as many as six or seven defenders at Newton and play man coverage in the secondary. If Newton escapes the pressure but doesn’t have anyone open, the Cardinals’ defensive backs could have their backs to him and leave him room to run. Newton wasn’t a factor in the running game last week vs. Seattle because he didn’t have to be after the Panthers jumped out to a 31-0 lead. He only scrambled twice last year in a 27-16, wild-card win vs. Arizona. But both scrambles converted third-and-long situations, with one run extending a TD drive.
Can the Panthers turn Carson Palmer over?
Palmer set career highs this season with 4,671 passing yards, 35 touchdowns and a quarterback rating of 104.6. Palmer was intercepted 11 times in the regular season, but had two last week against Green Bay in the divisional round and could have had a third pick. The Panthers led the NFL in turnovers caused, interceptions, turnover margin and points off turnovers. Luke Kuechly’s pick-six of Russell Wilson on Seattle’s second offensive play last week put the Seahawks in a 14-point hole and changed the complexion of the game. The Panthers can set the tone again by coming up with an early takeaway in Arizona territory. And if they happen to get a defensive score, it would send the crowd into a frenzy.
Larry Fitzgerald a matchup nightmare on multiple levels
Fitzgerald looks to be starting on another monster postseason run with his eight-catch, 175-yard performance vs. Green Bay, highlighted by his 75-yard “Hail Larry” in overtime. Ideally the Panthers would put shutdown CB Josh Norman on Fitzgerald all game. But Fitzgerald plays more than half his snaps in the slot, and Norman does not play inside. That puts the onus on 5-10, 190-pound nickel corner Cortland Finnegan. Fitzgerald (6-3, 218) will have a big size advantage on Finnegan, not only in the passing game but also when blocking. Fitzgerald is a tenacious downfield blocker who could spring WRs John Brown and Marcus Floyd for big gains after catches if he takes Finnegan or another defender out.
Cardinals at Panthers
Bank of America Stadium, Charlotte
Sunday, 6:40 p.m.
FOX (Joe Buck, Troy Aikman, Erin Andrews, Chris Myers)