Arizona Cardinals @ Carolina Panthers: Panthers can gore toothless Cards

Newton's Law: Cam has hit form despite a car accident
Newton's Law: Cam has hit form despite a car accident

Romilly Evans previews the opening game of Wildcard Weekend where he expects a fortunate Carolina outfit to make the most of their good fortune against faltering Arizona...

"Ryan Lindley’s House of Cards is about to come crashing down."

Back Carolina Panthers (-6.5) to win on the Match Points Spread @ 2.021/1 or better

Arizona Cardinals @ Carolina Panthers
Start-time: Saturday, 21:35
TV: Live on SS1

Hard to believe that a losing season with just seven wins took the Carolina Panthers to the NFC South title. A home tie against the stuttering Arizona Cardinals is generous reward for such meager regular-season endeavour, but they'll gladly take what they're given by the vagaries of the NFL seeding system.

Earlier in their campaigns, the fortunes of these two sides could not have contrasted more starkly, or been more at variance with the current situation. Arizona, under QB Carson Palmer, were bossing the toughest division in football, while the Black Cats were looking for any kind of break in a bid to snap a six-game losing streak

Now, however, despite winning four more games than Carolina, the Cardinals must perform on the road with their fourth-choice quarterback. In short, although they remain talented (particularly on D), they resemble a riderless horse - put an obstacle in front of them and they could still jump it but they have lost the stirrups for effective steering.

A directionless, rudderless offense is not what head coach Bruce Arians wants (or deserves) against a resurgent Panthers defense. Hands up, I wrote them off after their midseason woes, but they have rebounded in fine style. Esteemed stats site ranks them as the fifth best in the entire league since Week 10, thanks to the sterling efforts of Charles Johnson and first-year find, Kony Ealy. So they've definitely found their form at the right time.

Indeed, the latter comment could be applied to Carolina on both sides of the ball. Quarterback Cam Newton had been living down to expectations all season - no signal-caller since 1950 has found himself in play-off country with a record three games shy of 50% success rate (5-8). At yet here he is, just a few weeks removed from a brutal pile-up on the freeway, playing some of his best stuff, having delivered in consecutive crunch encounters against Cleveland and Atlanta.

Newton talks about being given a second shot both on and off the field and he is playing like a man reborn, even though he's still nursing some stiff joints from that car accident. Together with rushing sidekick Jonathan Stewart, the pair have surpassed the 100-yard mark for 11 consecutive games, chalking up more round gains than any other QB-RB combo in the league.

Elsewhere, Newton's preferred target Kelvin Benjamin continues his development and improvement. True, with 11 spills already this term, he needs to put his pouching paws on. Yet this keen and committed 23-year-old won't fall prey to the rookie hoodoo of the postseason (where their performance level can drop off due to a mixture of concerns over fitness, and mental preparation). Benjamin retains the physique and focus to click into a higher gear.

Ill-starred Arizona, as mentioned earlier, have lost it at exactly the wrong moment. Just 73 total points over the past six weeks (including a woeful four offensive TDs in their last 75 drives) marks them out as the least effective play-off O in the past 80 years. Drew Stanton's decent arm was their final hope, but now that his efforts - and right knee - have been set in ice for 2015 there's no reason to suppose that Ryan Lindley can save them under center. 

Lindley, however, did step up against San Francisco last week, connecting for his first two touchdowns and a career-best 316 yards. Let's not get carried away, though. The Niners' motivation (embattled dressing room and nothing for which to play) could be doubted and Lindley still moves around the pocket like the wide-eyed, sixth-round draft pick that he is. 

The play-offs place a premium on such composure and his inaccuracy and pick-prone passing (another three interceptions in Week 17) mean that the Carolina D will be salivating at the prospect. It seems cruel and almost unjust, but the team which sneaked into the postseason via the back-door can prevail over another which once looked like a legitimate championship contender. Hey ho, it's an unfair world. And Lindley's House of Cards is about to come crashing down.

Recommended Bets
Back Carolina Panthers (-6.5) to win on the Match Points Spread @ 2.021/1 or better

Back Carolina Panthers  (-3.5) to win on the First Half Points Spread @ 2.01/1 or better
Back Under 15.5 Arizona Cardinals Total Points 2.111/10 or better

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