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By Scott Garbarini, Associate NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - Neither the Carolina Panthers nor the Arizona Cardinals were postseason participants a year ago, but each team finds itself atop its respective division heading into this Sunday's midseason matchup at Bank of America Stadium.
If not for an ill-fated cross-country trip in September, the Cardinals would be entering Charlotte with an unblemished record. Arizona has won all three of its home games so far and came through with a victory at San Francisco in the season opener, but back-to-back road losses to Washington and the New York Jets in Weeks 3 and 4 has Arizona sitting at a still-notable 4-2, which is good enough for a two-game lead in the rather soft NFC West.
Carolina has roared out to a 5-2 mark, which is tied with Tampa Bay for first place in the NFC South, largely on the strength of dominant play on its home grounds. The Panthers are 4-0 at Bank of America Stadium this year and outscored the opposition by a sizeable 108-33 margin in those outings.
That has to be a concern for a Cardinals club that was plagued by mistakes in their two early starts in the Eastern Time Zone earlier this season. Arizona committed two costly turnovers in a seven-point setback at Washington on September 21, then had its fate sealed by seven giveaways in a wild 56-35 loss to the Jets a week later.
Strong defense has been an essential ingredient to Carolina's early-season success as well. The Panthers have yielded the second-fewest passing yards and rank third in the NFL in scoring defense at the moment, having surrendered a scant 14.9 points per game.
Carolina held New Orleans' top-rated aerial attack firmly in check during last weekend's impressive 30-7 home rout of the Saints, and now gets to face the league's second-ranked passing offense in Arizona, which is expected to have standout wide receiver Anquan Boldin back on the field following a two-game absence.
Boldin, a two-time Pro Bowl selection who owns the NFL record for fewest games to compile 400 career receptions, has not played since suffering a sinus fracture and concussion as the result of a frightening helmet-to-helmet collision with Jets safety Eric Smith on September 28. The prolific wideout was cleared to practice this week and plans to take his customary spot opposite the equally-dangerous Larry Fitzgerald for Sunday's test.
The Cardinals are coming off a bye week and will be attempting to maintain the momentum gained from two consecutive victories that preceded the break, including an uplifting 30-24 overtime triumph over defending NFC champion Dallas in Week 6.
Carolina has a 5-2 lead in its all-time series with Arizona, including a 25-20 road victory when the teams last met, in Week 6 of last season. Carolina also won the most recent matchup between the clubs in Charlotte, which took place in 2004. The Cardinals are 0-4 against the Panthers since last defeating them, in Charlotte in 2002.
Carolina head coach John Fox is 4-1 against Arizona in his career, while the Cardinals' Ken Whisenhunt is 0-1 against both Fox and the Panthers as a head coach.
WHEN THE CARDINALS HAVE THE BALL
Although Whisenhunt preferred a run-based approach during his tenure as Pittsburgh's offensive coordinator from 2004-06, he's allowed his team to play to its strengths and the Cardinals are leading the NFL in scoring (29.5 ppg) as a result. Quarterback Kurt Warner (1708 passing yards, 12 TD, 5 INT) has completed 70 percent of his throws this season and has wisely utilized the talents of a stellar corps of receivers that will be even tougher to defend provided Boldin (27 receptions, 366 yards, 5 TD) is able to suit up and be a factor after his layoff. Arizona's passing game didn't tail off in his absence, however, because Steve Breaston (28 receptions, 1 TD) seized his opportunity of an increased role in the offense. The second-year pro posted team-bests of eight catches and 102 receiving yards in the club's big win over Dallas two weeks back. Fitzgerald (36 receptions, 546 yards, 5 TD) has been a model of consistency ever since the Cards landed him with the third overall pick of the 2004 draft, and is usually the guy Warner looks first to in the red zone.
Warner and his pass-catchers will be getting a stern challenge from a Carolina defense that has given up a mere 168.7 yards per game and five touchdowns through the air thus far. The Panthers prevented New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees from throwing a touchdown pass for the first time this season last Sunday, while cornerback Ken Lucas (24 tackles, 2 INT, 7 PD) held top receiver Marques Colston without a reception. He teams with the athletic Chris Gamble (40 tackles, 1 INT, 9 PD) to give the Panthers two quality cover men on the outside, while Richard Marshall (28 tackles) is a capable nickel back who should see plenty of action on Sunday, since the Cardinals generally use a lot of multiple-receiver sets. Carolina only registered one sack against the Saints, but flustered Brees all afternoon long with a persistent rush led by three-time Pro Bowl end Julius Peppers (19 tackles, 4 sacks). The defense may have a chance for increased disruption on Sunday, with Warner lacking mobility in the pocket and having had issues with ball security throughout his decorated 11-year career.
Arizona will have an easier time keeping Peppers at bay if it can establish an effective running game, but that's been a task easier said than done this year. The Cardinals are averaging just 86.8 yards per week on the ground (28th overall) and are 31st in yards per rush (3.2). The aging Edgerrin James (363 rushing yards, 3 TD, 10 receptions) is still getting the bulk of the team's ball-carrying duties, but the 10th-year veteran has been losing touches to promising youngster Tim Hightower (130 rushing yards, 14 receptions) in recent weeks. The rookie has delivered five rushing scores as the primary short- yardage back while also showing solid hands as a receiver.
The Panthers come in ranked a respectable 14th versus the run (107.0 ypg) and boast a fast and productive group of linebackers headlined by sophomore Jon Beason (56 tackles, 1 INT) in the middle and former safety Thomas Davis (45 tackles) on the weak side. Strong safety Chris Harris (29 tackles), who topped the NFL with eight forced fumbles in 2007, is active in run support as well.
WHEN THE PANTHERS HAVE THE BALL
Carolina's success is usually predicated on how well quarterback Jake Delhomme (1533 passing yards, 7 TD) performs under center. Four of the hard-nosed Cajun's five interceptions this year came in the team's road losses to Minnesota and Tampa Bay, but he's amassed an outstanding 105.5 passer rating over the Panthers' four home wins and thrown two touchdown strikes in each of the last three contests held in Charlotte. When Delhomme's on, that usually makes for a big day for Steve Smith (28 receptions, 496 yards, 2 TD), who's totaled at least 96 yards and six catches in four straight tilts. The game- breaking wideout racked up a season-best 122 yards and a touchdown on six grabs in last week's win. Reliable veteran Muhsin Muhammad (32 receptions, 469 yards, 2 TD) has helped alleviate double-teaming of Smith, while an offensive line that's been beset by injuries throughout the year has still provided sound protection for Delhomme, who's been sacked just once over the last four games.
Delhomme will be taking aim at an Arizona stop unit that has had its struggles halting enemy quarterbacks, as the team ranks just 20th overall in pass defense (220.3 ypg) and was burned for 321 yards and a pair of long touchdowns by Dallas' Tony Romo in its most recent outing. The Cardinals have allowed 12 scores through the air in six games, while recording a meager sum of three interceptions. Arizona has been able to consistently generate pressure up front, however, as offseason signee Travis LaBoy (20 tackles, 4 sacks) has made a nice impact as an end/linebacker hybrid and situational end Bertrand Berry (8 tackles, 2 forced fumbles) has produced four sacks in four games. The secondary's lone standout is strong safety Adrian Wilson (18 tackles), who missed some time earlier in the year with a hamstring strain but should be at full strength on Sunday after getting the bye week to recuperate. LaBoy is also hopeful of playing after having to leave the Dallas game with a groin pull.
The Cardinals have been stronger against the run, having surrendered just 93.7 rushing yards per game (11th overall) and holding the Cowboys' Marion Barber to 45 yards on 17 carries in their Week 6 win. Arizona sports a pair of difference-makers along the front seven in weakside linebacker Karlos Dansby (42 tackles, 2 sacks), the team's leading tackler, and lineman Darnell Dockett (19 tackles, 2 sacks), a Pro Bowl honoree in 2007. Middle linebacker Gerald Hayes (39 tackles) is also well-regarded for his run-stuffing abilities, while Wilson is a force inside the box when healthy.
The Panthers' ground attack has been somewhat spotty over the course of this season, but there's little question that Carolina becomes a far tougher team to defeat when backfield mates DeAngelo Williams (414 rushing yards, 10 receptions, 4 total TD) and Jonathan Stewart (352 rushing yards, 5 TD, 3 receptions) are going well. The pair combined for 134 rushing yards while sharing a near-even split of touches in last week's victory over the Saints. Both backs would benefit if center Ryan Kalil and right tackle Jeff Otah, both of whom have missed the past two games with sprained ankles and are considered questionable for Sunday, are able to go. The Panthers are currently 15th in the league in rushing offense (114.0 ypg).
The Cardinals possess more fantasy stars among these two teams, but the individual x-factor in this game is Steve Smith, who draws a highly favorable matchup and stands a good chance of putting up a double-digit point total. Delhomme's strong play at home and Arizona's problems in pass defense make the Carolina quarterback a worthy start as well this week, while both Williams and Stewart should get enough touches to make either Panthers running back a passable flex option. Warner's re-emergence as a No. 1 fantasy quarterback has been a pleasant surprise for his owners, but optimism should be a bit tempered considering Carolina's prowess against the pass and the 37-year-old's previous tendency of turning the ball over on the road. Fitzgerald is a must-use at wide receiver every week and Boldin certainly merits consideration if active based on his excellent track record. If the Cardinals decide to hold him out another week, Breaston should be fine as a fill-in. With the Panthers having struggled some scoring touchdowns in the red zone, kicker John Kasay's stock has been on the rise in recent weeks.
The Cardinals' ability to light up the scoreboard makes them a dangerous opponent most every week, but the club's two subpar showings in East Coast venues earlier this year raises a serious red flag. Add in the fact that Carolina has displayed far more balance on offense and is playing as well as any team on the defensive side, and it's hard to envision Arizona coming out on top in a building where Carolina has been manhandling the opposition as of late. Look for Delhomme and Smith to connect on a few big plays against the Cardinals' shaky secondary, and for the Panthers to win the turnover battle that will ultimately prove to be the difference.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Panthers 27, Cardinals 17
10/23 16:36:59 ET
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