For Arizona, controlling the Panthers' rushing attack is critical. Despite being suspect in that area at times during the regular season, the Cardinals defense had an impressive performance against the Atlanta Falcons in the wild-card round. They did a fantastic job of shutting down running back Michael Turner, the league's second-leading rusher. But they are going to be challenged again this weekend by DeAngelo Williams, who ranked third in the league in rushing yards and first in touchdowns.
Of bigger concern, however, might be the road trip the Cardinals face. Arizona has had a really rough time this season when they have had to travel to the East Coast, going 0-5 in those contests. And they didn't just get beat in most of those games. Most of the time they were blown out. So playing in Carolina's stadium certainly seems like a strike against them. Especially since the Panthers not only went undefeated at home this year, but because they won in their own stadium by an average of more than 15 points per game.
One thing in Arizona's favor, though, is that of all the teams they crossed the country to face, their game earlier this season with the Panthers was the closest. They lost just 27-23 and actually had a 14-point lead at one time.
The key for the Panthers, of course, is going to be slowing down the Cardinals passing attack, which features a pair of big, strong receivers in Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin (assuming Boldin, who suffered a hamstring injury last week, is able to play) along with a veteran quarterback in Kurt Warner who has presided over two of the greatest passing attacks in NFL history. It's no secret, though, that the way to slow down the Cardinals offense is to get to Warner consistently and put him on the ground. He does have a tendency to turn the ball over when he is under pressure.
That means a key figure in this game will be defensive end Julius Peppers, who rebounded nicely in 2008 with 14.5 sacks after recording just 2.5 in 2007. A dark horse to play a significant role in this contest as well, in my view, is second-year defensive end Charles Johnson, who recorded six sacks in a limited role during the regular season.
The bottom line, though, is I fully expect the Panthers to get to Warner enough times to throw off the rhythm of the Cardinals passing game. And while they may not shut them down completely, Carolina should be able to control the clock and keep Arizona's defense out on the field, which, in turn, should wear them out and allow Williams and fellow running back Jonathan Stewart to find a lot of success late in the game.
Prediction: Carolina 27, Arizona 18