Setting the stage
After defeating the Tampa Bay Buccaneers last Sunday at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa Bay, the Arizona Cardinals had to be more than excited to head back home to Phoenix and sleep in their own bed for a change; following the week three loss to the Saints, the team flew straight to Florida to prepare for the Tampa game.
The game against the Carolina Panthers promises to be a homecoming of other kinds as well, with Pro Bowl linebacker Daryl Washington, nose tackle Dan Williams and injured safety Rashad Johnson all slated to return to the lineup after absences for various reasons. Needless to say, Arizona is hoping the home-field advantage is enough to knock off a solid Carolina Panthers team.
Coming off of a bye week, Carolina rolls into University of Phoenix Stadium Sunday with an anxiety to prove they’re better than their 1-2 record. Cam Newton has shown improvement each season in the league, a trend that’s continued into 2013, but he’s still yet to make the ascension to elite, as the talent around him offensively continues to get weaker and weaker for one reason or the other; injuries, free agent departures and Father Time have all contributed.
Here’s a look at some key matchups for Sunday’s game between the Panthers and Cardinals.
Daryl Washington vs Greg Olsen
This matchup is promising for two different reasons.
The first being the return of middle linebacker Daryl Washington. A Pro Bowler last season, Daryl Washington had a rough offseason, resulting ultimately in a four game suspension for the former TCU linebacker. Now that he’s back, the Arizona defensive playbook promises to expand drastically, as D-Wash may be the best defensive player not named Patrick Peterson on the Cardinals squad.
The other angle is the tight end one. After allowing monster games to Jared Cook and Jimmy Graham, Arizona needs to prove they can cover tight end receiving threats if they want to contend for a playoff spot. They have an excellent to put those performances behind them against Carolina’s Greg Olsen, who is Cam Newton’s leading receiver. Daryl Washington will probably be asked to cover Olsen quite often, and it may dictate how Carolina’s passing offense goes the whole game.
Patrick Peterson vs Steve Smith
So far in 2013, five-time Pro Bowl wideout Steve Smith has been rather pedestrian, never eclipsing 52 yards in a game. He has also not caught a pass of more than 15 yards.
At 34 years of age, Smith’s prime may be behind him. Despite that, he’s still an extremely talented receiver and should give Patrick Peterson a moderate challenge. Ted Ginn and Brandon LaFell are decent wideouts as well, but shouldn’t draw as much attention as the 13 year pro. If Patrick Peterson can keep Smith on an island without requesting backup, Arizona’s defense should not be thrown for too much a spin, and can focus on the challenges Cam Newton brings as a runner.
Carson Palmer vs Panthers front seven
Headlined by Defensive Rookie of the Year Luke Kuechly, Carolina’s front seven is an extremely steadfast unit. Through three games, they have amassed ten sacks and 11 tackles for loss. The defensive unit as a whole has been pretty solid in its own right, keeping Seattle to 12 points and shutting out the Giants. And at 12th against the pass and 6th against the rush, they’ve got the production to back it up.
Even down Jon Beason who was traded to the Giants, this is a unit I expect to be very active, especially considering how much Carson Palmer has struggled against the blitz so far in 2013.
The Vegas betting line has shuffled around considerably throughout the week, with Arizona starting the week favored by two. As the game drew closer, though, Carolina is now favored by two instead.
I think the first betting line is closer to the truth. A lot of publicity has been focused on Arizona’s disappointing offense. Despite that, the fact is that at full capacity, Arizona is far and away the better team. And I expect Carson Palmer to have his best game of the season with his back against the wall after three lackluster performances. On the defensive side of the ball, I do feel Carolina is underrated, but so is Arizona, who I still feel has the depth and talent to keep up with any team in the NFL.
I like ARZ 21-20 CAR. Last week against Tampa shook my faith in the Cards offense a little bit, but Arizona has bigger fish to fry than Carolina this season, and will have to get by them if they want to even remotely think of playoffs.