January 24, 2016 (10:14 AM ET)
Take Carolina Panthers at -3 spread against Arizona Cardinals for 3% of the bankroll.
This is a showdown worthy of the Super Bowl. In our opinion, these are not only the top two teams in the NFC conference but the two very best ones in the NFL this season! Their combined 28 regular-season wins are the most between playoff opponents since 2004 and they've done it with balanced offenses and stingy stop-units. They don't have as much experience as the Patriots and Broncos in championship games but are statistically superior in most facets of the game.
This is an intriguing matchup because these two have been on a collision course for a long time but did not face each other in the regular season! This is their first up-close and personal look at each other this season and we believe that gives the Panthers an advantage. Because while both quarterbacks were MVP candidates and enjoying an exceptional year, Cam Newton is a dual-threat QB that can make something happen out of nothing even when coverage is tight and the defense is doing a solid job. The 35-year old Palmer is more of a traditional pro-style QB in the sense that he stands in the pocket and distributes the ball but he doesn't have the legs, speed nor the strength of Newton to make plays on his own when his receivers are not open. We saw how much Arizona struggled against Russell Wilson and his ability to make plays with his legs and we believe they may find it tough against Newton as well since he's a unique quarterback to prepare for! With a QB like him, you have to worry about all the usual stuff such as tight coverage, defensive assignments and yet you also need a line-backer or two to act as spies and be ready to bring him down if he decides to keep the ball in his own hands and run with it. The issue with that is that it takes additional personnel and he's also very difficult to tackle as he can bulldoze his way to first downs with sheer speed and strength. One other interesting fact is that Cam Newton has more touchdowns (18) against the blitz than any other QB this season! What has been Arizona's bread and butter? They've blitzed on 44% of their defensive snaps this season which is more than any other NFL team.
This game is being played at the Bank of America Stadium where the Panthers are a perfect 9-0 this season! They have a huge home field advantage and you'd in fact have to go back to November 2014 and look into the archives to find their last loss in Charlotte, a 19-17 defeat! Since that narrow loss, Ron Rivera's squad have been a team on a mission and finished the 2014/2015 season with 4 straight regular season wins before putting together a 15-1 mark this season! They have been the hottest team in the NFL for a long time and yet continously get overlooked. Some have remarked about their strength of schedule but the fact remains that you can only beat what's in front of you and they certainly have. They've defeated good teams along the way and if it wasn't for lackluster second halves due to huge leads which made them 'relax' and complacent, they would have scored blowout victories over the likes of Seahawks! We believe the fact that their game against Seatte last week as well as the contest in New York against the Giants a few weeks back, ended up close on the scoreboard despite such domination will serve them well here. That's because despite outclassing their opponents, they had a 'late scare' and realized that they need to play with the same level of urgency and competitiveness for both halves and can't just take their foot off the gas pedal. It was an important lesson for them to learn before facing a dangerous opponent like Bruce Arians' Cardinals and we expect a more complete game from them tonight.
These two teams both average over 30 points per game but one has the more balanced offense and that gives them another edge in this contest. Carolina has rushed for 100 or more yards in each and every game this season and keeps defenses honest by calling pass and run plays almost equally! That makes Mike Shula's offense incredibly unpredictable as they not only have the ability to throw the ball accurately but can run it effectively with Jonathan Stewart, Whittaker, Artis-Payne and even Mike Tolbert for short-yardage situations! And of course Cam Newton might read the defense, fake a handoff and simply elect to keep the ball himself! And that is just the ground game. Through the air, Newton has veteran TE Greg Olsen to throw to on key downs and as a primary red zone target as Olsen continues to be Mr. Reliable! Ted Ginn Jr. provides excellent acceleration and can take the top off of a defense that has star safety Tyrann Mathieu on the sidelines. Mathieu was the heartbeat of this secondary and a true leader! The Panthers have their captain Luke Kuechly as well as veterans like Thomas Davis directing traffic and would no doubt miss them if they were injured.
One last aspect that some incorrectly overlook but should not are special teams and in particular the kicking game. It's not uncommon for playoff games to be decided by a late field goal or two and that's when teams with reliable kickers such as Stephen Gostkowski of the Patriots win championships while others fall just short. Just ask the Minnesota Vikings and Blair Walsh as a missed 27-yard FG was all that prevented them from taking Seattle's place against the Panthers! These two kickers have both had solid seasons but Graham Gano is a veteran that has played in numerous high-pressure situations like this in the past. Chandler Catanzaro meanwhile is just 24 years old and seems to lack natural confidence. Much to the dismay of Bruce Arians, he's missed extra-point kicks and generally does not seem comfortable under pressure. Now with the lights at their brightest, he may be in his head just a bit more. The Panthers have numerous advantages in this contest and should win this by at least a field goal if the referees don't bail out Arizona with dubious pass-intereference flags when Carson Palmer decides to desperately throw it deep late in the game.
Other notable facts to consider:
- Panthers haven't lost at home for over 14 months!
- Cardinals are just 1-5 ATS against teams with winning records.
- Panthers are a perfect 7-0 ATS when the line is in the +3 to -3 range!
- Teams coming off an overtime game are just 2-7 ATS in conference championships.
- Panthers have rushed for 100 or more yards in 30 consecutive games!
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