So after all the weather and all the buildup to the first NFC Championship Game that Charlotte has ever hosted, we finally get a Carolina-Arizona kickoff at 6:40 p.m. Sunday.
That’s a “weird time” for a game to start, as quarterback Cam Newton said, and I agree with that. But it’s not a weird matchup at all – Arizona and Carolina were the top two seeds and had the top two records in the NFC this season. Both teams deserve to be here.
I said last week in this space I expected Seattle and Carolina to be an epic affair, and it was. One team scored 31 points in the first half, the other scored 24 points in the second half, and all told it was a game no one will forget anytime soon.
For some reason, I have a feeling that this game won’t be quite as epic. Interesting? Absolutely. But decided in the final two minutes on a recovered onside kick, with one team nearly coming all the way back from 31 down? Somehow, I don’t think so.
▪ This is a cool list: Arizona’s remarkable Larry Fitzgerald is the only player in NFL postseason history with three games of 150 or more yards receiving (including last week against Green Bay). And only three other guys have two games like that: Jerry Rice, Fred Biletnikoff and Steve Smith. Of course one of those games was against Carolina in the 2008 postseason, when practically every play of Arizona’s 33-13 victory seemed to involve a Jake Delhomme turnover or a Fitzgerald reception.
“Larry Fitzgerald is a playoff machine,” Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly said.
▪ Once upon a time, Carolina coach Ron Rivera could hardly ever win the close games. That has changed dramatically – and the Cardinals win those sorts of games, too. From 2013-15, Arizona has an NFL-best .762 winning percenage in games decided by seven points or fewer. Carolina is second by an eyelash at .761.
▪ Given the high-profile nature of the players involved and the fact that the award usually goes to a quarterback, don’t you find it strange that this is the first time in the NFL postseason that Heisman Trophy-winning quarterbacks have gone head to head?
Arizona’s Carson Palmer won the award in 2002 and Cam Newton won in 2010.
▪ Prediction time: I am 13-4 this season picking the Panthers’ outcome.
Generally I steer clear of picking other games, but I’m going to take a shot at the AFC Championship Game Sunday, too. I like Denver’s defense a lot, and I think Peyton Manning will do just enough on offense not to lose it for the Broncos. So ... Denver 23, New England 21.
As for the Panthers and Arizona, there’s no doubt this Arizona team is better than the one Carolina beat last season in the playoffs. But the Panthers are better, too. My pick: Carolina 30, Arizona 20.
Fowler: 704-358-5140; Twitter: @scott_fowler