Charlotte, N.C. — Hey, don’t forget about us.
As in, yes, while Brady-Manning 17 takes place earlier in the day, the teams with the two best records in the NFL go at it in the NFC championship game Sunday night.
That would be the host Carolina Panthers, that rare team to go 15-1 in the regular season, and the Arizona Cardinals, who were next in the NFC and overall standings at 13-3. Maybe it isn’t the juiciest story line dominating the football world, but there’s plenty of reasons to be intrigued by this one, too.
“One guy (Tom Brady) is playing in his 10th and there are two guys that are playing in their first,” Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer says of reaching the last step before the Super Bowl. Palmer, in his 13th season, and Panthers QB Cam Newton, in his fifth, are newbies at conference title games. “Everybody has a different journey. Everybody has a different path, and however it works out is the way it works out. Everybody has different roads.”
That’s also true for the coaches. Arizona’s Bruce Arians’ long and winding coaching road goes back to his time at Alabama under Bear Bryant. Ron Rivera, a linebacker for the awesome Chicago Bears’ defense of the 1980s, spent time on three coaching staffs before landing the Carolina gig.
Both franchises have been to the Super Bowl and lost close contests. New England beat Carolina 32-29 after the 2003 season, and Pittsburgh edged Arizona 27-23 for the 2009 championship.
“I think we are the better team,” Cardinals All-Pro cornerback Patrick Peterson says. “I’m pretty sure they are saying the same thing, that they are the better team. We’ll find out on Sunday.”
Some things to watch for in the NFC championship game, which kicks off at 6:40 p.m. ET:
This is the first meeting of Heisman Trophy-winning quarterbacks in a conference championship. Palmer won it at Southern California in 2002 and Newton took it at Auburn eight years later.
This has been the best pro season for both of them. Newton, the All-Pro QB, threw for 35 touchdowns and ran for 10, an unprecedented number for the position. Palmer has the highest passer rating, 104.6, of any of the four remaining quarterbacks — yes, higher than Hall of Fame-bound Brady and Peyton Manning — and threw for 35 scores.
The list of Heisman winners at the position who had NFL success has been slim. Consider these names surrounding Palmer’s award: Chris Weinke, Eric Crouch, Jason White and Matt Leinart.
Better to look at the professional pedigree. When healthy, Palmer has been a solid quarterback if not spectacular, and he is a perfect fit for Arians’ schemes in Arizona.
Newton has taken the Panthers to three straight NFC South titles, something never previously achieved. His skill set can be overwhelming, as is his confidence.
He expects to perform at a high level regardless of the circumstances or pressure.
“I don’t get nervous,” Newton says. “I’ve been playing football too long for me to get nervous. I have dreamed of being in this position.”
A severe winter storm rocked the Carolinas, although conditions should be fine by kickoff, if a bit chilly for Charlotte.
Both teams could turn to the running game if the weather is problematic, which might be an advantage for the Panthers, with Jonathan Stewart over Arizona rookie David Johnson. Stewart’s 59-yard sprint on the first play against Seattle last week catapulted him toward a 106-yard performance and set the tone for a decisive first half.
With solid defenses on both sides — Arizona ranked fifth during the regular season, Carolina sixth — any hangover from the nasty weather could keep the score down.
Fitz vs. Josh
Josh Norman emerged in 2015 as one of the NFL’s best shutdown cornerbacks. Larry Fitzgerald re-emerged as one of the league’s most dangerous receivers this season.
When they match up, it could be the most entertaining and significant battle in the game.
Norman likes to get physical, as his antagonistic showdown with the Giants’ Odell Beckham Jr. showed in December. Fitzgerald doesn’t get intimidated.
“Josh Norman is a premier cornerback,” Fitzgerald says. “There’s a reason he’s going to be the highest-paid free agent come this offseason. Whatever team he goes to, I hope it’s in the AFC, so we don’t have to deal with him.”
The Cardinals will move Fitzgerald around, into the slot at times, and even coming through the backfield as he did on the shovel pass that beat Green Bay in overtime last week. That will put someone else on him at times.
But mostly, it will be the ultra-confident Norman.
Don’t get conservative
Carolina played it way too safe last week after building a 31-0 lead over Seattle at halftime. The final? Try 31-24, as the Seahawks dominated the last two quarters.
Rivera has acknowledged that the Panthers got way too protective instead of continuing to push the pace, challenge the Seahawks. He promises that won’t happen again, though he probably should be concerned how his defense ran out of gas in the second half of that game.
Arians has warned Palmer not to be too restrained, concerned that the quarterback could check off some plays against a defense led by three All-Pros in Norman and linebackers Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis.
One thing for certain is Arizona won’t back off on its aggression on defense.