NFC Championship Game: Arizona Cardinals At Carolina Panthers

The AFC Championship Game earlier on Sunday might have the star power with Denver quarterback Peyton Manning and New England counterpart Tom Brady facing off for the 17th time in their Hall of Fame careers. But the two best teams in the NFL this season were unquestionably in the NFC as second-seeded Arizona visits No. 1 Carolina for a trip to Super Bowl 50 on Feb. 7. Neither the Cardinals nor Panthers have ever won a Super Bowl.

Carolina is a 3-point favorite on NFL odds with a total of 48 points. On the moneyline, the Panthers are 1.6369 and Cardinals 2.3700. The Panthers are 2.8500 second-favorites to win the Super Bowl and Cardinals 5.0000.

How They Got Here

Arizona was a 7-point home favorite in the divisional round and beat Green Bay 26-20 even though the Packers tied the game on a 41-yard Aaron Rodgers Hail Mary on the final play of regulation. But the Cardinals won the toss in overtime and scored in three plays thanks to Larry Fitzgerald, who took the first play 75 yards on pass from Carson Palmer. Two plays later, Fitzgerald scored on a five-yard shuffle pass from Palmer. It was the second straight postseason that Green Bay lost in overtime without touching the ball on offense. Fitzgerald had eight receptions for 176 yards in the game and that score. He now has 10 touchdowns receptions in his postseason career and is tied for the third-most postseason touchdown receptions in NFL history. Up next is former Steeler John Stallworth with 12. The record is quite safe: 22 by Hall of Famer Jerry Rice.

Carolina, which led the NFL this season with 15 regular-season wins, was a 2.5-point favorite last week against two-time NFC champion Seattle and the Panthers won 31-24, taking a 31-0 lead at halftime and hanging on for dear life. Running back Jonathan Stewart, returning from a foot injury, scored two touchdowns after jump-starting the Panthers with a 59-yard run on the team’s first play. Stewart injured his ankle in the game but should play vs. Arizona. NFL MVP favorite Cam Newton was fairly quiet, throwing for 161 yards and a TD.  The Panthers have won 12 straight at home overall.

Heisman History

Believe it or not, Heisman Trophy-winning quarterbacks have never started opposite one another in an NFL playoff game but that changes on Sunday with Palmer and Newton. Palmer won the award in 2002 at Southern Cal  and Newton in 2010 at Auburn. Both were also No. 1 overall draft picks. And Newton is the lock NFL MVP this season with Palmer likely to finish second. These are also the top two scoring offenses in the NFL.

Expect a close game as the NFC Championship Game has been so in each of the past eight seasons, including four overtime games. There have been eight consecutive NFC Championship Games decided by seven points or fewer, the longest streak in conference title game history. With a win Sunday, the Panthers will become the ninth team in NFL history to lose one or fewer regular season games and advance to the Super Bowl.

These teams met in last year’s wild-card round and Carolina won 27-16 in Charlotte. Take little from that as the Cardinals were down to third-string QB Ryan Lindley that day and Arizona was held to 78 total yards, the fewest in NFL playoff history. This year’s Cardinals were 7-1 on the road, tying Carolina for the best away record.