*This was originally published on White Cover Magazine…
Arizona Cardinals at Carolina Panthers
- I feel inadequate. I have nothing really fresh to say about this game, at least nothing more than anyone else already has. (I suppose this is always the case.)
- Because I live in the Pacific Northwest, I’ve both seen and heard enough about Arizona this season, and it doesn’t seem to matter. Because the Cards don’t have a quarterback, all respect to Ryan Lindley. And even if they had a third-stringer who brought more of a resume into the situation than Lindley does, the key words here are third-stringer. Because a third-stringer is a shoehorn, but it’s not a substitute for a shoe.
- I’d also argue the Cardinals were over-achieving with Carson Palmer, who led them to an 6-0 record. (They’d go 8-1 before Palmer tore his ACL on November 9.) Since then, with replacement Drew Stanton and Lindley, the Cards have tumbled to 11-5 – they’ve looked acceptable, but they certainly haven’t looked like the team Palmer guided.
- That said, Palmer hasn’t been an elite quarterback for a long time. His career was trending south in Cincinnati, he was forced to spend two soul-searching seasons with the Oakland Raiders (a setting comparable to Joseph Conrad’s Africa in Heart of Darkness), and it seems like he’s been in Arizona forever… even though this was just his second year with the Cards. But he is the perfect quarterback for Arizona, and so perhaps you could say they were over-achieving together.
- Nobody expected the Cardinals to finish their season 15-1, but Palmer’s ability to annually throw for 4,000 yards and – in comparison to both Stanton and Lindley – simply get the ball in the air on a routine basis is enough for receivers like Larry Fitzgerald, Michael Floyd, John Brown, and back Andre Ellington. Helping matters more is, the Cardinals were an offence running a true committee – like with Seattle and New England, it’s hard to know who led the Cardinals at wideout every Sunday, but you know they got the win.
- Without Palmer – who was also benefitting from leading an offence that didn’t rely on him to be the only intelligent one in the huddle – the script’s been re-written, but there’s no protagonist. Think about what Steve Buscemi did for Boardwalk Empire. Sure, it didn’t always seem like he was doing much but, without him, who would the camera have focused on?
- Switch to Carolina, where the plot is flipped from Arizona…
- The Panthers started their year 3-2, fell asleep and woke up 3-8-1, then won their final four games to finish at the top of the NFC South. So unlike Arizona, the Panthers closed out their year strong. Unlike Arizona, the Panthers have a quarterback who raced to the finish line and didn’t limp to it. But like Arizona, the Panthers have a record that doesn’t do them justice… the Cardinals are 11-5 overall, but 2-4 in their last six. Carolina is 7-8-1 overall, but finished their year 4-0.
- The Cardinals don’t have one receiver who really led them each or any week – Larry Fitzgerald is of course their No. 1 target, but Fitz hasn’t had a 1,000-yard season since 2011. Meanwhile, in Carolina, Cam Newton can rush for as many yards as Michael Floyd can catch for and Greg Olsen is the NFL’s best tight end not named Rob Gronkowski. During the first 1,000-yard season of his career in 2014, Olsen was Newton’s most reliable option and the reason the Panthers won their division. Sure, they Panthers had Newton and they had rookie receiver Kelvin Benjamin – who also racked up over 1,000 yards – but Olsen was the rock that allowed Carolina to keep chugging. He was the link that kept the train together.
- And yeah, Cam Newton’s cool. But should he really be allowed to call himself Superman? It seems like the nickname that gets a new owner every four years, like it’s Olympic gold in some high-profile event nobody actually cares about… like the 100 metres. Shaq had it at one point, then Dwight Howard stole it. Pretty sure LeBron thinks it’s his nickname. Now Cam Newton just gets it and nobody questions it? All he did was slightly change his celebration stance from his predecessors. Weak.
- As much as this seems like a match between polar ends, the two teams have something in common… they both badly need a playoff win.
- Arizona actually had a terrific 2013, only missing the playoffs because Seattle and San Fran sat down first when the music ended. They were probably a better team last year than Carolina was – the Panthers and fantasy football’s No. 1 defence finished 12-4, but they lost 23-10 in their only playoff game to San Francisco.
- So Cam Newton is still searching for his first postseason victory. Arizona desperately needs a playoff win to prove themselves to the league – because the rest of the NFL won’t notice them until they etch their name on the Super Bowl.
- Because of that, their records don’t matter. And that works against Arizona.
Prediction: Carolina 30 – Arizona 14