The Carolina Panthers got off to a slow start to the 2014 NFL regular season, but have won four straight to close it out. Even with a 7-8-1 record, they clinched the NFC South with a season-ending victory over the Atlanta Falcons. They will now face the Arizona Cardinals in the NFC Wild Card match on Jan. 3 at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, N.C.
Could the Carolina Panthers shock the world for a run at Super Bowl XLIX?
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The Panthers concluded their 20th NFL season with a 34-3 demolition of the Atlanta Falcons to clinch their second consecutive NFC South title in spite of an underachieving 7-8-1 record. It was Carolina's fourth straight win, giving the team momentum heading into the 2014 NFL postseason. The Panthers go down in league history as just the second sub-.500 team to win a division crown. The first was the 2010 Seattle Seahawks.
Although 32 of the Panthers players have combined for just 80 postseason appearances and 45 postseason games started, nobody should count them out.
According to The Charlotte Observer's Joseph Person, five players from the 12-win, 2008 roster are still around: running backs DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart, center Ryan Kalil, linebacker Thomas Davis and defensive end Charles Johnson.
Carolina head coach Ron Rivera told Panthers.com's Max Henson on Dec. 29 he's glad his team doesn't have to deal with a bye week heading into the playoffs. During his four-year tenure as head coach, Rivera is 0-5 after coming off a bye week. He agrees with the notion that a bye could possibly ruin a team's momentum, something the Panthers cannot afford:
"Am I glad? Yes, definitely.
"I do agree with that. Being able to carry momentum into (the playoffs) is a lot better than all of the sudden you've got to pause and take a breath. Your mind wanders a little bit. It's hard to maintain that, especially when you know you've got a break."
Coming into the showdown against the Cardinals, the Panthers are dealing with injuries to two key players: running back DeAngelo Williams (hand) and linebacker A.J. Klein (ankle), per Henson.
However, ESPN Carolina Panthers reporter David Newton reported on Dec. 30 that Williams is expected to suit up on Saturday against the Cardinals. Rivera remains unfazed in terms of potentical chemistry issues, even if Carolina has averaged 200 yards on the ground in Williams' absence.
Rivera quipped, "He's part of this chemistry. He's part of why we are where we are today. If he's healthy and ready to go he'll get his opportunities."
One facet the Panthers' defense must focus on is the recent erratic quarterback play of the Cardinals, who are dealing with injuries to Carson Palmer and Drew Stanton, per Person. The next quarterback on their depth chart, Ryan Lindley, failed to throw for a touchdown in 225 pass attempts (an NFL record) prior to the 20-17 road loss to the San Francisco 49ers in Week 17. Lindley ended his drought with two touchdown passes but also threw three interceptions.
Person notes Stanton is "unlikely" to play in the postseason due to a knee infection, although Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians did say he "remains on schedule."
Another player who has struggled for Arizona has been wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald. His 63 catches in 2014 is his lowest output since his rookie season, per Perform Media's (via The Sporting News) Kristie Chiappelli. Fitzgerald produced just two touchdowns during the regular season, and the last thing the Panthers want is for him to get hot during their Wild Card game.
As for Carolina, they have been getting good quarterback play from starter Cam Newton, who sat out the Week 15 game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers after he injured his back in a car accident. In his two games since then, he has thrown for and rush for a touchdown for the Panthers. He has averaged 57 rushing yards during those two appearances, per ESPN.
Newton is expected to go to rookie wide receiver sensation Kelvin Benjamin, who concluded the 2014 campaign with 1,008 receiving yards and nine touchdowns on 73 receptions. Linebackers Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis are expected to lead Carolina's charge on defense.
Entering the Jan. 3 showdown, Chiappelli points out the Cardinals have a 6-7 all-time postseason win-loss record while the Panthers are 6-5. Look for the Panthers, who are without wide receiver Steve Smith for the first time in 13 seasons, to build not only on their momentum but also on their divisonal playoff game loss to the San Francisco 49ers season.
As for the Cardinals, their struggles at quarterback will prove too much to overcome.
Prediction: Panthers 28, Cardinals 21
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