The Carolina Panthers, with the NFL’s best regular season record, host the Arizona Cardinals, the improbable champions of the NFC West and the team with the NFL’s second best record (6.40pm ET, Sunday on CBS).
This NFC Championship game match-up is one that nobody would have predicted at the start of the season. Prior to that point, five NFC teams including the Seattle Seahawks, who were the sportsbooks’ favorite to win it all, were at shorter odds to win the division that the Cardinals.
Ten NFC teams including the soon-to-be LA Rams, Atlanta Falcons and New Orleans Saints, the pick to win the NFC South, were rated more likely in the betting than the Panthers. Carolina, who entered the year without their top receiver and on the heels of a 7-8-1 season, were ranked 23rd among the 32 teams overall. In their division, only the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were bigger long-shots.
So if you picked this as your NFC Championship game prior to the start of the 2015-16 season, you earned yourself a lot of money.
When deciding our betting pick prediction for which of these teams heads to the Super Bowl this preview needs to look at how they got to this NFC Championship game. As it does for most teams, this brings us right to the quarterbacks, who collectively and individually had two of the best seasons among those at their position.
The Real QB Battle: Cam Newton vs Carson Palmer
All of the hype and all of the media attention and fanfare is with the 17th installment of the great rivalry between Peyton Manning and Tom Brady. That’s not surprising but what is perhaps surprising is that come Sunday, the better QB match-up won’t be in that game but rather in the late game, the one that pits Carson Palmer against Cam Newton (pictured), first overall pick against first overall pick, in a season where both signal callers have been better than advertised.
Palmer, now in his 13th season in the league, put in the kind of year that one always expected from the former first overall pick. He posted career numbers in addition to ranking 2nd in the league in touchdowns (35), 3rd in rating (104.6) and 4th in yards (4,671). He led one of the NFL’s most balanced offenses, a team that averaged the most yards per game, 7th most points per game, 2nd most pass yards per game and 8th most rush yards per game.
There was nothing the Cardinals didn’t do well and that was in large part due to the impact of Palmer and the passing game, which included career numbers for Larry Fitzgerald, who ranked top-10 among his position in both receptions (109) and yards (1,215).
Newton meanwhile, 2011’s first overall draft choice, had the MVP year at a time when he certainly needed it. Much was made over the past few years regarding Newton and his ability to be that guy and this year he more than proved it. Newton was the best in his class, ranking in the top-10 in touchdowns (35), rating (99.4) and rushing touchdowns (10). And that rushing touchdown mark, of which he ranked 5th, was measured against not just QBs but all league running backs as well.
Like Palmer, Newton led a pretty balanced offense. He did have a top receiver, one who ranked 10th in touchdowns with 10, but he also had a top-15 offense in total yards, was 2nd in rushing yards and tops in total points and points per game with 31.3.
Perhaps it is only fitting then that the Panthers would go against the Cardinals, the only other team in the NFL to average over 30 points per game.
The Most Evenly Matched Championship Game All Around
I already touched on the quarterbacks and the offenses of the two teams and how they are quite similar but that isn’t the only area that Carolina and Arizona share in success. In fact, on defense, in every major category, both teams are no more than four spots ahead of the other and run top-15 in all categories.
In defensive points and yards allowed, Arizona and Carolina run five and six. In passing yards per game, Arizona is 8th in the NFL and Carolina is 11th and in rushing yards allowed per game, the Panthers rank 4th to the Cardinals’ 6th.
It’s the most evenly matched championship game. That begs the question, where does the X-Factor come from? Who is the guy or what is the stat that puts one team ahead of the other?
Let’s look at home field advantage: Historically and statistically, throughout the playoffs, the championship games in particular, the home team has emerged victorious more often than not. This year, the Panthers were undefeated at home, a winning streak that dates back to mid-November of last season.
Arizona almost gave away their game last week against the Packers, while the Panthers steamrolled the Seahawks for much of that game and showed a dominance and sense of belonging that some had been questioning.
Arizona Cardinals vs Carolina Panthers Betting Picks Predictions
So turning towards predictions for the outcome of this NFC Championship game, and crucially the betting picks, the Panthers are proving to be more than a fluke. They are more than a team that had the benefit of playing one of the weakest NFL schedules, facing the entire NFC South six times and the NFC East four times. The Seattle game was really a turning point and one that could see the Panthers all the way to a shot at the Super Bowl.
- The spread sits at 3pts in favor of the home team. I see this being a safe call. So take the Carolina Panthers -3pts @ best odds of -112 with BetOnline Sportsbook. It is -115 with 5Dimes for the same spread while Bovada go -3.5pts @ -105.
- This game matches up the league’s two top points-per-game teams, so our betting pick is to go over 47 total points @ -110 with 5Dimes Sportsbook. Bovada & BetOnline both go over 47.5pts for odds of -105 and -110 respectively.
Marilee writes on NFL, MLB, NBA & tennis for USA Betting. Another area of her sporting journalistic expertise is pro wrestling. A native of Philadelphia and a big Eagles fan, she has been a sports writer for many major websites including Bleacher Report and Rant Sports. She started her journalistic career early, as sports editor for her college newspaper.