The NFL season is like a good season of television. Like the old standard for television shows, it takes place over 22 weeks, with one game (episode) per week. Throughout the season, and over many seasons, football fans are treated to great character development and consistently intriguing plots. The competition to win a Super Bowl, which only one team can be succeed at each year, often feels as epic as Game of Thrones, Scandal, or Downton Abbey. I’m always surprised when I talk to non-sports fans who are themselves surprised that I think about football in terms of plot and characters. I don’t think I’m unique among sports fans for following sports in this way, although perhaps most people wouldn’t use those terms. In any case, at this point, with only two episodes and three games left, this year’s arcs feel a little less epic than most. One reason for that is that the last four teams alive in the playoffs are the top four seeds, ranked one and two in each of the two conferences, the AFC and NFC. By earning a top-two seed, these teams got a bye, which means they took the first week of the playoffs off. So, we don’t have a team this weekend that’s coming off two playoff wins, with at least one surprise win. On the other hand, we do have the four teams that played the best over the course of the regular season. We’re set up perfectly for things to get truly epic very soon.
In this post, we’ll preview the plot and characters of the second NFL Championship game, the NFC Championship between the Carolina Panthers and the Arizona Cardinals. This game is in North Carolina on Sunday, January 24, 2016 at 6:40 p.m. ET on Fox.
What’s the Plot?
In the NFL these days, the offense almost always provides the most compelling characters who drive the plot of the game. That’s true in this game, but it’s worth admitting right up at the top that it’s defense which has driven both of these teams to the success they’ve had this year. Both teams have marvelous defenses, but because they’re evenly marvelous (Football Outsiders has Carolina as the second best defense in the league, Arizona the third,) they cancel each other out, plot-wise. When it comes to defense in this game, it’s safe to say, both teams will be great.
On the offensive side of the ball, we do have some wonderful contrasts. Carolina’s offense has a clear and unquestioned leader in quarterback Cam Newton. A dual running and passing threat, Newton is a young veteran at 26 who is having the best season of his career. He will almost definitely win the league Most Valuable Player award for his play this season. He probably would win the award even if he had had legendary supporting players, but it doesn’t hurt that most people think the other players on the offense are extremely average. Running back Jonathan Stewart has been around for a while, and shown promise before, but has always been brought down by one injury or another. The Panthers wide receivers are what turn Newton’s season from great to spectacular: Tedd Ginn Jr., Philly Brown, Devin Funchess, and Jerricho Cotchery are all totally unremarkable, below-average NFL wide receivers.
Arizona is almost the complete opposite. They’ve taken a very, very good but not great quarterback, Carson Palmer, and surrounded him with an extremely deep and talented bunch of players at wide receiver and running back. There are descriptions of most of these characters farther below, so I won’t go into them too deeply here, but it’s safe to say that any of Arizona’s top five wide receivers would be Carolina’s best or second best wide receiver if they switched teams. At running back, Arizona is actually using their third starter this year, but he may be their best. David Johnson is a rookie who played last year at the University of Northern Iowa. He’s looked completely at ease, and at times dominant, as a starting running back in the NFL. Impressive!
Arizona quarterback, Carson Palmer, is just slightly too good to turn this game into a referendum on whether it’s better in the NFL to have a great quarterback but nothing else on offense or an average quarterback surrounded by great skill players. Instead, let’s take the plot one step back from that dramatic precipice and simply say it’s a referendum on whether an absolutely great quarterback can elevate his supporting characters over a more well-rounded offense with better receivers and running backs but a slightly less dynamic quarterback.
Who are the main characters on the Arizona Cardinals?
Bruce Arians – Head Coach Bruce Arians is almost always the biggest character in the room. He’s an iconoclast who wears his weirdness literally on his head. He’s famous for wearing kangol hats. When it comes to football, he’s ready to try just about anything that might work but he has some clear preferences. On offense, he wants to throw the ball farther down the field more often than any other coach in the league. This high-risk, high-reward strategy asks a lot of the team’s quarterbacks and offensive linemen, which has been a problem in the last two years.
Carson Palmer – The guy throwing the ball down the field for Arians is Carson Palmer. Palmer has had one of the most long-lasting tragic careers in sports. Early in his career, he was seen as being on track to be one of the truly great quarterbacks of his generation. Then, on the first throw of his first playoff game, he completed a beautiful, long pass to receiver Chris Henry (who has since died, so this is a doubly tragic play in retrospect,) and was hit low by an opposing linemen and tore his ACL. The injury was not a career ending injury (clearly) but it altered his path significantly. He’s now seen as a very good player whose greatness was robbed from him, not once, but several times thanks to other injuries. At 36, this isn’t his last shot to reclaim that greatness, but it may be his best shot. It’s hard not to root for Palmer.
Larry Fitzgerald / John Brown / Michael Floyd / Jaron Brown / J.J. Nelson – This is the best set of five wide receivers that any NFL team has ever had. Other teams (including the Pittsburgh Steelers this year) might have had a better top three, but I don’t think any team was as good and as deep as the Cardinals. Larry Fitzgerald (who remains the best football player I’ve ever seen in person. I had the unfortunate pleasure of watching him go for 207 yards and 2 touchdowns in the first half against Rutgers in 2003.) is the old man of the bunch. A sensational player who has transitioned into being the world’s best possession receiver, capable of picking up 8 yards whenever his team needs him to. The other four are different varieties of deep threat — insanely fast dudes who are good at running past their defenders and catching the ball. If they start getting it going, just watch and marvel at them.
Who are the main characters on the Carolina Panthers?
Cam Newton – Quarterback Cam Newton is, and always has been a lightning rod for controversy. In college, he won a national championship with Auburn, and it was an even more open secret than with most high profile college players that he had taken fairly large sums of money under the table for playing there. In the NFL, he’s been the subject of years of criticism for being too self-impressed, too brash, both criticisms that have suspiciously racial overtones. From a strictly football standpoint, he’s been an amazing success. He’s a combination of one of the top ten pure passers in the league with a top ten running back in a single body. Newton ran for over 600 yards and 10 touchdowns this season. This makes him an unusual double-threat for opposing defenses to fret about, especially when the Panthers get close to the goal line.
Josh Norman – If you had surveyed a group of football fans a year ago today about who corner back Josh Norman was, you would probably have gotten a lot of blank stares. Now, after the season he had this year, he’s a household name. Norman is one of the rarest commodities in football, a shutdown corner. He will line up opposite a team’s best wide receiver and basically erase him from the game. Quarterbacks have learned that throwing to a player guarded by Norman is close to a no-win situation and it can be a giant loss if Norman gets his hands on the ball. One thing that Norman doesn’t normally do though, is move into the slot (when there are three or more wide receivers on the field, the slot refers to wide receivers that are not one of the ones on the outside edge of the formation,) so he probably won’t be shadowing Larry Fitzgerald.
Luke Kuechly – Middle linebacker, Luke Kuechly is literally at the center of the Panthers defense and he’s figuratively its heart. He’ll be wearing the green dot on his helmet which signifies that he is the only defensive player who gets the play calls radioed in from the coach and it’s his job to communicate them out to the rest of his teammates. Experiment for a few plays and just watch him — he wears number 59 — and marvel at how quickly he figures out what the offense is going to do and gets himself into a position to help stop them from doing it.
Who is going to win?
The obvious choice here is Carolina. They are playing at home and their home field, which will be wet, cold, and in bad shape after a snow storm, should favor their more physical run-laden attack. They also came very close to going undefeated this year and n their first playoff game last week, went up 31-0 against the Seattle Seahawks in the first half, one of the most impressive performances I’ve ever seen. Compared to that, Arizona looked downright shaky in their first game. Carson Palmer barely played well enough to win, and the team needed overtime and extraordinary heroics from Larry Fitzgerald just to beat the Green Bay Packers, a team not nearly as good as Carolina. Despite all that, or maybe even because of it, I’m going to guess that Arizona wins this game. Both teams’ defenses will pose real problems for the opposition’s offense. I think it’s possible that at home, with all the expectations of being the number one seed and almost going undefeated, there’s a chance this seriously frustrates the Panthers. The Cardinals have struggled before, as recently as last week, and have more recent memories of overcoming. A bad start on offense won’t knock them out of whack, but it might derail the Panthers.