The two participants in last year’s NFC Title Game are on the ropes early in 2016. Arizona and Carolina lost their starting quarterbacks in the fourth quarter yesterday, and may be without them next week, as Cam Newton and Carson Palmer both entered the concussion protocol.
Both teams now sit at 1-3, and have games that are rapidly approaching “must-win” status coming up on the schedule. When you consider that 10 wins may be required for the playoffs, and the two meet in Carolina at the end of this month, it gets serious real quick. Entering November with a losing record would present a formidable challenge for returning to the playoffs.
While the specific illnesses may be different for the two teams, the path to this point has seemed very similar.
Both lost tough matchups with their AFC counterparts in the showcase Week 1 primetime games. That appeared to be quickly forgiven and behind them when they both demolished their next foes. Arizona thrashed Tampa Bay 40-7 a week later, while Cam Newton showed why he was MVP a year ago with a 46-27 win over San Francisco that featured over 500 yards of offense.
But it was those games that are so far, the aberrations. The Panthers lost at home to Minnesota in a game where Cam Newton was sacked 8 times and battered all day. The Cardinals went across the country to Buffalo, and turned the ball over several times. This week featured the first divisional matchups for each, and in games against teams expected to finish well below them, the Cardinals and Panthers again lost.
For Carolina, the method was particularly concerning. In the first matchup against an established veteran quarterback and quality passing offense, the Panthers got demolished. Julio Jones went for 300 yards by himself. The Panthers became the first Super Bowl participant to allow 550+ yards of total offense in a game the next year since the 2011 Packers. They did it in the final week 17 game against Detroit, with Aaron Rodgers sitting (you might remember the game that made Matt Flynn a temporary star). The Panthers are 28th in points allowed, and 28th in net yards per pass attempt allowed so far in 2016.
Cam Newton has also been getting beat up this year. He was pounded–often bordering on the illegal–in the opener against Denver. He was under constant pressure against Minnesota. And then he took the big hit on the goal line that knocked him out of the game this week.
For Arizona, it’s been all about the turnovers. In many ways, they shut down the Rams’ offense, but they allowed some big plays. The Rams only had 12 first downs, versus 26 for the Cardinals. In fact, over the last two weeks, Arizona has 51 offensive first downs and only 28 first downs allowed, but lost both games thanks to 5 turnovers in each game.
Turnovers tend to even out, and so I wouldn’t be too concerned for Arizona yet, but the short week puts renewed emphasis on getting a result. That may have to happen with Drew Stanton at quarterback. If Arizona wants to reach the postseason, they simply cannot lose to the 49ers and drop to 1-4.