CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The key to the Arizona Cardinals advancing in the NFC playoffs could come down to their ability to slow down Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton in the running game.
Arizona’s defense has struggled against mobile quarterbacks the past two weeks.
Seattle’s Russell Wilson ran for 88 yards on six carries and San Francisco’s Colin Kaepernick had 63 yards on seven rushes to spearhead wins over Arizona. The Cardinals allowed a combined 473 yards rushing in those two losses.
Newton is well aware of the opportunity in front of him when the Panthers host the Cardinals on Saturday in an NFC wild-card game.
“Obviously it’s something that sticks out,” Newton said. “I know they will have some wrinkles in for me and hopefully I will be able to dissect them and take what they give me. (But) I’m not going to go into this game thinking that I’m going to have 200-plus yards in the running game myself, because that’s not what it’s about. It’s about being productive and executing the game plan.”
Carolina’s running game has been in high gear in recent weeks, including a 194-yard performance in an NFC South-clinching 34-3 win over the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday. Newton accounted for 51 yards rushing and a touchdown.
Newton has been an active participant in Carolina’s running game in his last four starts, carrying 39 times for 246 yards and three touchdowns.
“Unfortunately we’re going against one of those similar offenses that we’ve been having problems with the last few weeks,” said Cardinals linebacker Larry Foote. “But we’re comfortable, we’re used to it.”
Cardinals coach Bruce Arians called Newton an unbelievable athlete, but is expecting a better effort from his defense this week.
“Hopefully we have learned something,” Arians said. “The big thing is cover your guy when you are in blitz. We gave up an easy touchdown and an easy long run in that ball game on mental errors so those two things are easily correctable hopefully.”
Carolina (7-8-1) is only the second team in NFL history to reach the postseason in a non-strike-shortened season with a losing record.
Nonetheless, the Panthers opened as a 4½-point favorite at home in large because Arizona’s quarterback situation. The number had climbed to 6½ by Friday.
LINDLEY IN, STANTON OUT: Arians on Thursday declared quarterback Drew Stanton out against the Panthers, meaning Ryan Lindley will get the start. Lindley is 0-2 as Arizona’s starter.
Lindley, a sixth-round draft pick in 2012, completed 23 of 39 passes for 316 yards and two TDs in a 20-17 loss to San Francisco last week, but was also threw three interceptions. Arians said he has confidence in Lindley but “he’s still got to protect the ball better.”
Stanton was 4-2 as Arizona’s starter before injuring his knee in Week 15 against St. Louis.
TURNING UP THE HEAT: Carolina defensive coordinator Sean McDermott is turning up the heat. The Panthers have 17 sacks in the last five games, including six against the Falcons last Sunday. The Panthers are getting a better push from their front seven, led by defensive end Charles Johnson. “He’s had a tremendous stretch of four games,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said.
LOOSE PANTHERS: Carolina’s locker room has been very loose this week with a quiet confidence emitting from the locker room. Rivera said that is because the Panthers are “playing with house money” after repeating as NFC South champions when it appeared they were out of the running after starting the season 3-8-1. “It’s not been the season of a prototypical playoff team, but who cares?,” Newton said.
FITZGERALD’S TIME: Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald seems to step up when the playoffs arrive. In six postseason games, Fitzgerald has 42 receptions for 705 yards and nine touchdowns. That includes three 100-yard receiving games, including eight catches for 166 yards and a touchdown in Arizona’s 33-13 upset win over Carolina in the 2008 divisional playoffs.
KUECHLY FACTOR: Panthers middle linebacker Luke Kuechly leads the league in tackles for the second time in three seasons. Behind Kuechly, the Panthers have gone from 27th in league in overall defense in Week 7 to 10th to finish the season.