Now that the dust has settled on the 2014 regular season the cream (mostly) has risen.  This is part one of a four part series previewing the upcoming Wild Card Weekend.  Check back tomorrow for Ravens/Steelers, Thursday for Bengals/Colts, and Friday for Lions/Cowboys.
The first game is the weakest of the four.  Both from a record standpoint and a TV rating standpoint.  The NFL’s dominance will definitely be tested as the 7-8-1 Carolina Panthers host the 11-5 Arizona Cardinals who are starting a third string quarterback.
Line at press time:  Panthers – 5 1/2

Carolina’s Offense vs Arizona’s Defense

If the Cardinals want to win this game, they better do it with a dominant defensive performance.  The Cardinals match up well with the Panthers, because while you can throw on them (29th in the league at 259 1/2 yards per game), it is not as easy to run on them (13th in the league at 108 yards per).
The Panthers are 7th in the league in rushing (127 yards per) and 19th in passing (219 yards per).  The Panthers are a running team, and that is how they are going to begin the game.  Can Newton isn’t terribly accurate, and the Panthers want to do everything they can to keep themselves out of third and longs all game long.  Since Jonathan Stewart took over the lead back role in December, the Panthers are 4-0, and Stewart is averaging 100 yards rushing per game.  Newton has also chipped in during this stretch with 197 rushing yards of his own.  Carolina has been utilizing the read option more late in the season, and Newton has flourished because of it.
  PetersonArizona must slow down the run and force Carolina to pass the ball.  Patrick Peterson should draw Kelvin Benjamin all game, and force Newton to throw to his other wide receivers, who aren’t very good.  The X Factor is Greg Olsen, who should be able to dominate the Cardinals Linebackers in the passing game.  To Neutralize that, the Cardinals should make sure they bring the pressure, forcing Olsen to be used more as a blocker.

Cardinals Offense vs Panthers Defense

Now it gets ugly.  Here are the points scored by the Cardinals in their last seven games.  14, 3, 18, 17, 12, 6, 17.  That’s an average of 12.4 points per game.  The fact that they went 3-4 over that stretch is a testament to their defense.  That being said, the offense has been nothing short of horrific for most of the season.  Arizona ranks 31st in rushing (81 yards a game).  They are a respectable 14th in passing at 238 yards per game, but that stat is misleading.  The Cardinals threw the ball with Carson Palmer and Drew Stanton early in the season, so the numbers are skewed.  Ryan Lindley has also turned the ball over four times in his two starts, including three interceptions in Sunday’s loss to San Francisco.  The Cardinals need to protect the ball and win the turnover battle.  Stephan Taylor is a plodder.  He is averaging 3.3 yards per carry, and his longest run this season is 21 yards.  Kerwynn Williams has been Arizona’s best back down the stretch, so expect to see a lot of carries from him.  Larry Fitzgerald is not the Larry Fitzgerald of old and Michael Floyd has been a disappointment.  John Brown has shown flashes, but you can’t really count on anyone in the Cardinals passing game.
After a slow start to the season, the Panthers defense has rounded into form.  They finished 16th in the league against the run (112 yards per), and it’s been 97 yards per during the month of December.  The Panthers should come out in their base defense, let Luke Kuechly run all over the field, and dictate the game.  I said earlier that Arizona has to force the Panthers to throw.  The Panthers don’t have to do the same.  Their defense should dominate the overmatched quarterback.
Special Teams- The Cardinals do have an advantage in Special Teams.  Ted Ginn is a return ace, and in a game like this field position could mean an awful lot.  Unless Ginn takes one to the house, though, I don’t see the Cardinals’ special teams advantage resulting in a victory.
The Pick- This game will be a low scoring, hard-hitting, slugfest.  Points will be at a premium and the first team to get to 17 will likely be the winner.  In games like this, you have to go with the veteran QB and expect him to protect the ball and make fewer mistakes.  Bruce Arians may also have a short leash with Ryan Lindley, so if he has little faith in his quarterback then I do to.  Panthers 17 Cardinals 9.