Arizona Cardinals @ Carolina Panthers: Newton's law can be repealed by the Cards

Fate in the Palmer's hand: expect Carson and his oval buddy to rack up the air miles
Fate in the Palmer's hand: expect Carson and his oval buddy to rack up the air miles

Romilly Evans assesses the NFC Championship Game, where he expects Carson Palmer and a miserly Arizona D to apply some cold home comforts to Carolina's Super Bowl push

"The erratic nature of Carolina's components means it can unravel as quickly as it comes together."

Arizona Cardinals @ Carolina Panthers
Start-time: Sunday, 23:40
TV: Live on SS1

Despite the blockbuster names headlining the AFC Championship, you'd have to say that on the balance of the season so far this NFC equivalent rates closer to a Super Bowl match-up.

For one, the Carolina Panthers (16-1) and the Arizona Cardinals (14-3) hold the pre-eminent records in the NFL. They also boast the top two scoring offenses (both averaging over 30 points per game) in the league. And, of course, their bulwark defenses ain't too shabby either, ranking fifth and sixth in the game. Carolina shade it on O, Arizona get the nod on D. But in essence, it's tight and something's gotta give on this home straight to Super Bowl 50.

Based on their respective performances in last week's Divisional Round, it may well be Carson Palmer's right arm. After a career year which has seen him installed as a legitimate MVP candidate (alongside overwhelming favourite and opposite number Cam Newton), Palmer lost his composure against Green Bay. Indeed, he was lucky not to be picked off at least twice more than he was, and benefited from some defensive spills and quick-thinking from his crack receiving corps.

In fairness to Palmer, though, this was out of character and can be explained away by the anxiety and excitement (two sides of the same coin) that go with garnering your first postseason victory. He should strip a good deal more relaxed and confident for this encounter, where his team are the underdogs.

For, all missteps aside, the Cards remain perhaps the most complete team around. As already alluded, their defensive detail is very sound and can routinely keep Newton off the park for spells, while David Johnson endures as one of the rushing revelations of 2015. But the key to kicking clear of Carolina will be entrusted to Palmer's cannon and its targets - comprising Larry Fitzgerald, Michael Floyd (stepping up in play-off country), JJ Nelson and Josh Brown. The Panthers' secondary is perhaps their one weak link, and any of this flying quartet can find the separation for some deep, downfield strikes.

Carolina will naturally look to repel boarders with Newton's twin-threat versatility and the early establishment of a solid ground game. This they achieved in spectacular style against Seattle, but jumping out to a similar 31-zip lead is simply not on the cards here. Russell Wilson's pick-six and a surprising lack of composure from the Hawks' LOB created an erroneous performance point.

Hometown advantage is the lone reason Carolina are favourites here. The Black Cats have set new standards in over-achievement by posting the league's high watermark this term. However, a soft schedule and some last-gasp hurrahs give the lie to Carolina's supposed dominance, and they will be pressed to assert it over the NFC's outstanding outfit. Especially considering a snowy storm threatens interrupt their outdoor preparations this week, with a blizzard of ice and white stuff set to hit Charlotte tonight. One might opine that those desert rats Arizona will find it the more difficult to adjust to such conditions. Yet some assured performances in the cold, allied to a perfect midweek prep, further sharpen the Cardinals' edge.

The Panthers have been begging me to take them on all season (granted, I've dodged some bullets!) so I'm finally going to take the bait. For all Newton's poise this year, it's well to remember that it is a tightrope he treads, albeit expertly. In fact, it will only take a few misjudged run-plays, and Carolina's self-styled Superman could soon become grounded. In which case, Newton often plays like a jittery cop busting into a crack den: he knows you can't go in with one plan, you need 20 - too much can go wrong. And while this unpredictability keeps them dangerous, the erratic nature of their components means it can unravel as quickly as it comes together.

So in this inaugural Conference battle of two former Heisman Trophy winners, expect Newton to break down. And Palmer to break through.

Recommended Bets

Back Arizona Cardinals (+3.5) to win on the Match Points Spread @ 1.824/5 or better
Back Arizona Cardinals (+1.5) to win on the First Half Handicap @ 2.56/4 or better
Back Arizona Cardinals Halftime - Arizona Cardinals Fulltime @ 4.67/2 or better
Back Under 47.5 Total Points @ 1.9420/21 or better
Back D. Johnson to score First/Anytime Touchdown 11.010/1 or better
Back M. Floyd to score First/Anytime Touchdown 12.011/1 or better

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