The Arizona Cardinals are seeking to be the first-ever NFL team to play in a Super Bowl game in their own home stadium.
These aren't the Arizona Cardinals of old -- they could possibly represent their home state in Super Bowl XLIX in Glendale, Ariz. on Feb. 1, 2015.
Head coach Bruce Arians proved his first season at the helm last season was no fluke. In 2013, he guided the Cardinals to a 10-6 record (however, they wound up just third in the competitive NFC West division). Their 11-5 win-loss record in 2014 wasn't enough to win the division, but it was Arizona's best finish in 39 years, dating back to their days in St. Louis.
The Cardinals are also in the postseason for the first time since 2009, when they lost to the Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl XLIII. Now, they have a chance to be the first NFL team ever to play in a Super Bowl in their own home stadium.
Arizona has lost four of its past six entering Saturday's showdown against Carolina, but Arians remains undeterred in a Dec. 30 interview with ESPN's Josh Weinfuss:
"The whole season is over. It's a whole new one. I told them I don't want anyone moping on the plane. It's 0-0 and we're in the tournament.
"We've got somet things to learn from. We've got a short week. We'll be at the office Tuesday getting ready for this playoff game. We're not planning on being one and done."
Cardinals cornerback Patrick Peterson shared the same sentiment with his head coach, per Weinfuss:
"Obviously we did limp into the playoffs the last five games. I believe that we were 2-3 or something like that.
"Now everybody is 0-0. It is a fresh season and a fresh start. We couldn't wait to get out of that regular season and start this postseason. We wanted to win this game and go in with some momentum but at the same time, we have the chance to play again next Saturday."
As for the game against the Panthers, Bleacher Report's NFL expert panel chose Carolina over Arizona in overwhelming fashion. Twelve of its 15 experts predicted the Panthers will prevail on Saturday.
Bleacher Report NFL featured columnist Gary Davenport says the difference lies in the fact that the once-reeling Panthers have won four in a row while the Cardinals have yet to win a game since quarterbacks Carson Palmer and Drew Stanton both came down with injuries.
No matter how mentally prepared Stanton is to face Carolina, his knee injury may prevent him from being his absolute best, per Davenport. The third quarterback on the Cardinals' roster, Ryan Lindley, three three picks against the San Francisco 49ers in Week 17 -- certainly not a good sign for Arizona.
Davenport says the other factor working against Arizona's favor is Panthers quarterback Cam Newton, who has come on strong since his car accident three weeks ago which forced him to sit out Week 15, a 19-17 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Newton has passed for and run for a touchdown in his last two starts against the Cleveland Browns and Atlanta Falcons. Newton, known for his running ability to elude the pass rush, has averaged 57 yards on the ground in those two games.
The New York Post's Steve Serby also says the lack of depth at the quarterback position will eventually go against the Cardinals. Serby also stresses Arizona defensive coordinator Todd Bowles has his work cut out for him -- his unit struggled against the Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers in December.
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Serby suggests top-notch cornerback Patrick Peterson locking down Panthers rookie wide receiver sensation Kelvin Benjamin should help. However, it is not only Newton who ought to help the Panthers advance -- their rejuvenated running game behind Jonathan Stewart is primed to be one step ahead of Bowles and Co.
For the Cardinals to win, Lindley not only has to play his A-game, he has to play at a level he has never played before. The recent struggles of Arizona's defense don't help one bit in trying to stymie Newton, Benjamin and Stewart. Look for Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly to also thrive in the Wild Card game.
Arizona linebacker Lorenzo Alexaner summed it up best when he spoke with Darren Urban of the Cardinals' official website on Dec. 29. He said, "For us not to be a one-and-done
team, we have to play better on defense. We can't continue to give up big plays. We have to be able to tackle better to get our swagger back."
The Arizona Cardinals vs. Carolina Panthers Wild Card game will be at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, N.C. on Saturday, Jan. 3 at 4:35 p.m. ET.
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