JOHNSTON: My pre-season Super Bowl pick was the Arizona Cardinals and I’m not going to jump ship now even though they’re the underdog. No disrespect to Jonathan Stewart, but David Johnson is the best running back remaining in the playoffs and he’ll be the key to the game. The Panthers showed in the second half against the Seahawks last week they can be picked apart in the passing game, which is one of the strengths of the Cards. On the other side of the ball, Arizona kept Aaron Rodgers in check apart from two Hail Mary completions to Jeff Janis. They won’t get burned on any big plays like that again.
My pick: 36–30, Cardinals
LOWE: Back in November, I predicted the Cardinals would win Super Bowl 50. I’m beginning to waver. Many have simply brushed aside Arizona’s beatdown at the hands of the Seahawks in Week 17, but paired with last week’s less-than-convincing overtime win over the Packers, much can be made about the NFC West champion’s recent form. In their last two games, the Cardinals have suffered through inadequate play from Carson Palmer (who didn’t play in the second half of the 36–6 loss to Seattle) and the run game has been entirely ineffective, totaling just 67 yards in Week 17 and the divisional round combined.
If those particular struggles carry into a wintry Charlotte this Sunday, it could be a long day for Bruce Arians’s Cardinals. Now, I’m not saying the Panthers will be as dominant early as they were last week against the Seahawks, but Sean McDermott’s defence is stellar up the middle against the run and pass, and brings pressure with the best of them. They also have the best cover corner in the game in Josh Norman.
That being said, I expect (or hope) the two highest-scoring offences in the NFL will put up a pile of points, but I think the difference will be the strength in the middle of Carolina’s defence.
My pick: 37–31, Panthers
HEATH-RAWLINGS: No upset here, Cam’s got this one in hand. The Cardinals were lucky to escape with a win over Green Bay last week—and as much as Bruce Arians might hope they’ll be looser with that monkey off their backs, the Panthers are several levels above the Cardinals in nearly every facet of the game save for the Cards' outstanding receiving corps, and they have home-field advantage. I expect the field conditions to play havoc with those receivers and Arizona’s track-meet-style offence, while allowing the Panthers to work their two-backs-plus-Cam running game and grind the Cards down. Both defences are excellent, but Carolina’s better in the trenches and the mud and that’s likely where this game is headed.
My pick: 27–20, Panthers
BATTLE: Cue Diane Chambers saying, "Think about it... a cardinal versus a panther?" Twenty-five-year-old Cheers riffs aside, I think I finally believe in Carolina. Neither of these teams played their best last week and both nearly lost to inferior opponents, so momentum is kind of a wash—unless you want to count the fact that at least the Cardinals were better in the second half last week than the first, something the Panthers can't say for themselves. But here's what Carolina can say: They've got the likely NFL MVP in Cam Newton; they've got a great ground game; and they're the best in the league at forcing turnovers. They're also on a 12-0 home winning streak that dates back to last year's playoffs. Not bad.
My pick: 30–20, Panthers