PRO FOOTBALL — January 24

NFC Championship

(America’s Bookie Line: Panthers -3, Total 47) — The Panthers have had a few close calls late in the schedule, and losing ground in the second half is admittedly somewhat alarming, in that the Cards have scored 131 second-half points on the road, most in the NFL. And Ted Ginn, the most dangerous Carolina receiving option, might be blanketed by Patrick Peterson. But somehow, even though it looks as if the Panthers are handicapped in terms of weaponry, they keep defying expectations. Carolina is 12th in the league in yards gained per drive, but they are FIRST in points per drive, as well as the best team in the red zone in terms of points scored (second in TD’s). They are going to run it, without a doubt, and they will keep doing it with Jonathan Stewart (989 yards on the regular season, 106 last week vs. Seattle) until Arizona shows it can stop them consistently. And Cam Newton is a whole different proposition to deal with (636 yards, ten TD’s). In terms of mobility, edge goes to the Panthers. And by the way, it’s not as if Newton and offensive coordinator Mike Shula haven’t had to deal with “shutdown” cornerbacks.

We know that if you don’t turn the ball over, you stand a better chance against the Panthers, who have forced 41 turnovers,, but the Cards have not been mistake-free by any means, as they are 20th in the NFL in turnovers per drive. Arizona was in a life-and-death situation with the Packers last week, and Carson Palmer (two INT’s), who did not have a playoff victory coming into that game, looked shaky at times. We’ll see if Carolina can get some pressure on him. Sure, the Cards can flood the secondary with speed, and the Panthers are without Charles Tillman (ACL). But Cortland Finnegan has picked up some of that slack, and look at all the playmakers in that Panther “D,” especially the unforgettable combo of Thomas Davis and Luke Kuechly at linebacker. Meanwhile, Arizona has lost a genuine defensive player of the year candidate in Tyrann Mathieu, and over these last two games they have been more permissive, allowing 370 yards a game (up from the overall average of 326, and allowing 4.7 ypc).

Remember also that the footing might be a little rough on this surface, as it was last week. The moisture is likely to be there again, and you saw the slipping and sliding in the Panthers’ game with Seattle. Arizona is not going to have a lot of time on this field; they traveled on Saturday, so they may not get accustomed to it so quick, and that is a potential edge as well. Perhaps as a side play, we also look for Carolina in the first half and Arizona in the second.


(All information is for news matter only; All games are graded on a scale of 1-4 stars. Lines are subject to change)