Scott Fowler

10 thoughts as the NFC Championship Game approaches for Carolina Panthers

Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton, at 26, is the youngest of the NFL’s final four quarterbacks.
Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton, at 26, is the youngest of the NFL’s final four quarterbacks. jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

As Charlotte prepares for the biggest NFL game the city has ever hosted, here are 10 random thoughts about the Arizona game to come at 6:40 p.m. Sunday and the Seattle game that just concluded for the Carolina Panthers.

1 Let’s check the age of the four quarterbacks in the NFC and AFC Championship Games on Sunday, shall we?

From oldest to youngest, you’ve got Peyton Manning (39), Tom Brady (38), Carson Palmer (36) and Cam Newton (26).

If your nickname is “Tennessee Mom,” you might harrumph that it looks like three men and a baby. But on Sunday – and only a year ago I wouldn’t have believed I could be saying this – you’d want Newton over the other three. He’s played the best of those four this season, and he is by far the most mobile quarterback left in a mix that includes two Heisman Trophy winners in Palmer and Newton, as well as three former No. 1 overall picks and one sixth-rounder in Brady.

2 The fact that Luke Kuechly, 24, is two years younger than Newton makes me believe the Panthers are poised for a long run as a playoff contender, similar to the types of streaks that Seattle and New England have been on the past several years.

But you can’t ever be sure, as Panthers wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery pointed out Monday. “Your time is not going to be next year or a couple of years from now,” Cotchery said. “That’s what I’ve learned over the years. You don’t get to say we’re going to be doing this for a long time, because you don’t know how everything plays out with injuries and free agency. You have to make right now your time.”

3 Hidden plays, Part 1: How big was Mike Tolbert’s recovery of Cameron Artis-Payne’s fumble on Carolina’s second play from scrimmage?

Coming on the play after Jonathan Stewart’s 59-yard run, a turnover in that situation would have let the air out of the crowd and the team. Instead, Tolbert took advantage of a great bounce and, two plays later, Carolina scored. Every playoff game has two or three plays like that (see Arizona’s deflected TD pass vs. Green Bay), and no matter how good your team is, you usually need some luck like that to seal it.

4 I loved Ricky Proehl’s dramatics on the “Keep Pounding” drum in pregame. Proehl, who played for the Panthers’ 2003 Super Bowl team and now is the team’s wide receivers coach, came out in a nondescript jacket. Just before he banged the drum four times, Proehl whipped off the jacket to reveal a white Sam Mills No. 51 jersey.

5 Good for Ron Rivera banning hoverboards from Carolina’s locker room, especially given that players had occasionally raced them through the Panthers’ vast locker room.

Can you imagine a hoverboard injury influencing an entire season? After watching Mike Tyson take a hard fall off one on Instagram, I certainly can.

The Panthers are 1-2 in their history in NFC Championship Games. Unlike Sunday’s title game vs. Arizona in Charlotte, all three of those were played on the road following the 1996, 2003 and 2005 seasons.

6 Hidden plays, Part 2: Jared Allen got no credit for this on the stat sheet, but he really should get half a sack on one play Seattle ran Sunday. Allen sniffed out a screen and stayed home as Russell Wilson tried to lure him into a rush. With Allen ready to intercept the ball if it was thrown, a flummoxed Wilson ended up taking a sack. Allen was credited with no tackles Sunday, but he also had three quarterback hurries. The Panthers will miss Allen if he misses Sunday’s game – as I expect he will – because of a fracture in his foot.

7 One of the big stories Sunday: Which team’s No. 2 cornerback is going to hold up best under a vicious assault?

You know about Carolina’s Robert McClain, who wasn’t even on the team until mid-December but got the call when a spate of injuries at the position left Carolina short-handed. McClain gave up a TD Sunday against Seattle and it seemed Wilson was looking toward his side of the field constantly.

Then again, Arizona has its own version of McClain in Justin Bethel. Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers threw at Bethel constantly on Saturday.

It makes total sense – you certainly want to throw at Bethel or McClain as opposed to Patrick Peterson or Josh Norman, the No. 1 cornerbacks on each team.

8 Did you notice Cam Newton only ran for 3 yards on 11 carries Sunday? Seattle really sold out to stop Newton on zone-read runs. It was a season low in rushing yardage for Newton, but what really mattered was how efficient he was. No turnovers in a playoff game – that was the biggest key.

9 Hidden plays Part 3: All it ultimately became was an incomplete pass. But Kuechly’s closing speed was amazing late in the fourth quarter when Wilson threw a pass to the deep left for Doug Baldwin.

Kuechly really had no business running that ball down, but he did, and batted it away. Safety Kurt Coleman said that to him that was a better play – because of the higher degree of difficulty – than Kuechly’s 14-yard interception return for a touchdown.

10 We started with quarterbacks, so let’s end with them, too.

Arizona had so much overall talent on the field compared to Green Bay on Saturday night that the Cardinals beat the Packers despite Palmer playing a pretty average game.

I could see that happen again in Denver. I think the Broncos are just flat-out a little more talented than New England this season. So unless Peyton Manning plays very poorly, I believe Denver is going to the Super Bowl.

But in the NFC Championship, the two teams are extremely close in talent. In that one, average won’t be enough. One quarterback is going to play extremely well, and that is the team that will ultimately go to the Super Bowl.

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