CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Cam Newton and Carson Palmer have a few things in common.
Both were Heisman Trophy winners. Both were No. 1 overall draft picks. And both have strong arms, each throwing for 35 touchdown passes this season while positioning themselves as league MVP candidates. Palmer’s Arizona Cardinals finished the regular season first in the league in offense, while Newton’s Carolina Panthers were No. 1 in points scored.
But that’s about where the similarities end.
Palmer is a pocket passer with a fairly calm demeanor, while Newton is a fun-loving athlete who can beat you with his arm and his feet — no QB in NFL history has run for more TDs — and then let you know it by “dabbing” in the end zone.
On Sunday, the two QBs with similar accolades but varying styles meet when the Panthers host the Cardinals in the NFC Championship game, with a berth in the Super Bowl at stake. It’s the first time two Heisman-winning quarterbacks have met in a postseason game.
“They are two different styles of quarterbacks,” said Panthers wide receiver Ted Ginn Jr., who has caught passes from both QBs in the last two seasons. “But they both come on the field and play as hard as they can. They both have great arms and can throw the ball and put their teams in position to win.”
Newton enters his first NFC title game with thoughts of keeping his foot on the gas. Palmer feels he has something to prove after a shaky performance in the divisional playoffs.
Palmer threw three touchdown passes in Arizona’s 26-20 overtime win over Green Bay last weekend, but he looked nervous and jittery at times in his first career playoff win with two interceptions, some overthrown passes and a series of poor decisions. He cannot afford them against a Carolina defense that forced a league-high 39 turnovers.
Cardinals coach Bruce Arians said Palmer seemed to have some butterflies during the game.
“I think just wanting so bad, maybe too bad, and being too tentative,” Palmer said. “That’s not my style. That’s not our head coach’s style. This is not a tentative offense and I think being tentative bit us in the butt in the first half. We came out with a different mindset, and I came out with a different mindset, after halftime.”
Arians vows not to allow that to happen again.
He said the Cardinals have been much looser this week in practice and his play calling will be more aggressive, which likely will mean testing Carolina’s secondary by going for big chunk plays down the field.
The Panthers defeated the Cardinals 27-16 last year in the NFC divisional playoffs, but that was with Ryan Lindley at quarterback. Panthers coach Ron Rivera said there is little the team can glean from that game since Palmer was out with a torn ACL.
“He’s got a lot of good weapons and he’s got a good offensive line in front of him,” Rivera said. “He’s got playmakers at all the positions. The biggest thing, more than anything else, is he does a great job of spreading the ball around. One thing you do notice in certain situations (is) who his go-to guys are. I think everybody knew who his go-to guy was in that game and that’s just the way it is.”
His go-to guy last Sunday was Larry Fitzgerald, who made a huge play in overtime and scored the game-winner on a shovel pass from Palmer.
The Cardinals’ focus will be on stopping Newton, the most dynamic player in the league.
This will be Newton’s fifth playoff game and he’s already won a national championship at Auburn, so he doesn’t expect nerves to be a problem — especially playing in the comfort of home where the Panthers have won 12 straight games.
“I don’t get nervous,” Newton said.
He looked calm and poised last week against the Seattle Seahawks, leading Carolina to a 31-0 halftime lead, but was frustrated over being shut out in the second half. He said the Panthers got too conservative — something the team cannot afford to do against the NFL’s top-ranked offense.
“We’ve just got to find ways to complete a full game of football,” Newton said. “We’ve been known to take our foot off the throttle. Yeah, we won the football game, but there are some things we’ve got to be better with.”
Arizona defensive tackle Calais Campbell said to stop Newton, the Cardinals must first slow down Carolina’s running game.
“His play action game is unbelievable,” Campbell said. “But that works when you can run the ball for four or five yards a pop. If we can get them for no gains and losses, get some long throwing situations, then you can really pass rush. But if you can’t do that then you have no chance.”