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NFL Preview - Arizona (4-9) at Carolina (1-12)
By Scott Garbarini, NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - Though it's less than two years since the Arizona Cardinals and Carolina Panthers faced one another in the playoffs, it seems like it's going to take considerably longer for either team to return to that level as presently constructed.
Both the Cardinals and Panthers will have an eye towards the future when the two tattered clubs get together this Sunday at Bank of America Stadium, with rookie quarterbacks set to start on each side in a mid-December matchup between current cellar-dwellers.
Arizona's last visit to Charlotte came during the 2008 NFC Divisional Playoffs, when the Cardinals induced six turnovers out of the then-South Division champion Panthers en route to a 33-13 victory that spurred them to a surprise Super Bowl appearance. The teams will be playing for considerably less this time around, with one well out of the postseason picture and the other a major longshot to get there with three weeks left in this year's regular season.
The Cardinals backed up that outstanding 2008 campaign with an NFC West title last season, but the retirement of accomplished quarterback Kurt Warner and several free-agent defections has caused the organization to fall on hard times. Arizona enters this weekend's clash with a 4-9 record and a two-game deficit in the division standings, a far cry from its achievements of the recent past.
Arizona's regression was illustrated by a seven-game losing streak that marked the franchise's longest skid since 2006, but the Cardinals will be heading east on a positive note after burying the disheveled Denver Broncos in a 43-13 rout this past Sunday in youngster John Skelton's first NFL start under center.
Skelton, a fifth-round choice of Arizona in last April's draft who was pressed into service after ineffective regular Derek Anderson and fellow rookie Max Hall went down with injuries in a loss to St. Louis the previous week, completed just 15-of-37 passes for 146 yards in his first extended action, but did not have a turnover and received plenty of support from a Cardinals' defense that picked off the Broncos' Kyle Orton three times and came up with six takeaways in all.
As for the Panthers, they've really never recovered from that mistake-filled playoff loss to Arizona. Carolina missed out on the postseason with an 8-8 record a year ago and has endured a precipitous free-fall in 2010, winning just one of 13 contests thus far while experiencing a litany of injuries to a roster that had already been gutted during the offseason.
The Panthers have long begun auditions to find young players to build around, with a number of rookies forced into important roles out of need. Among those neophytes has been quarterback Jimmy Clausen, who'll be taking the field on Sunday seeking to earn an elusive first NFL win in his eighth professional start.
The former Notre Dame star and 2010 second-round draft pick has taken his lumps in a trying debut, having hit on barely more than 50 percent of his attempts and registering a mere one touchdown pass in 10 games directing the NFL's worst offense. Clausen had a rough go of it again in Week 14, managing a mere 107 yards on 14-of-24 passing and throwing an interception in Carolina's 31-10 loss to NFC front-runner Atlanta. He was sacked five times as well.
Last week's setback was the seventh in a row for the Panthers, whose only win of the year came against an NFC West opponent at home, a 23-20 verdict over San Francisco on Oct. 24.
Carolina has a 7-2 lead in its all-time regular-season series with Arizona and has prevailed in six consecutive non-playoff tilts against the Cardinals, including a 34-21 triumph on the road during Week 8 of the 2009 campaign. Two of those victories during that stretch have come in Charlotte, where Arizona hasn't won in a non-postseason setting since Oct. 6, 2002.
Arizona's aforementioned 33-13 road win in the 2008 NFC Divisional Playoffs stands as the only postseason meeting between these clubs.
Carolina head coach John Fox is 6-2 against Arizona in his career, while Ken Whisenhunt is 1-3 against both Fox and the Panthers during his tenure with the Cardinals.
WHEN THE CARDINALS HAVE THE BALL
Despite Skelton's rather unimpressive numbers, Whisenhunt liked what he saw out of the strong-armed 22-year-old from a leadership and decision-making standpoint against the Broncos, and odds are the Fordham product will get an opportunity to prove his worth over the remainder of the season. His cause would be aided if the Cardinals can run the ball with the same authority they did last week, when the team churned out a season-best 211 rushing yards and got a career-best 148 yards and two scores out of top back Tim Hightower (667 rushing yards, 5 TD, 15 receptions). Results like that have not been the norm, however, as Arizona sits just 28th in the league in yards gained on the ground (90.3 ypg). Skelton (191 passing yards) does have two excellent targets to work with when he drops back to pass, as wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald (69 receptions, 861 yards, 5 TD) is a four-time Pro Bowl honoree and counterpart Steve Breaston (41 receptions, 1 TD) averages nearly 16 yards per catch. The Cardinals continued their season-long struggles on third downs in the Denver game, however, converting only 4-of-16 chances on the day. Arizona is last in the NFL in that aspect, having been successful just 26.4 percent of the time.
The lightly-tested Skelton could face a challenge this week from a Carolina stop unit that's been pretty tough on opposing signal-callers, ranking eighth in pass efficiency defense and snaring 16 interceptions in 13 games. Cornerback Captain Munnerlyn (32 tackles, 3 INT, 10 PD) has produced two picks in starting the past three games in place of an injured Chris Gamble (35 tackles, 8 PD), who's set to return from a hamstring injury on Sunday, while young safety Charles Godfrey (72 tackles, 5 INT) has exhibited ball-hawking skills as well from his post. The Cardinals will need to pay the most attention to end Charles Johnson (54 tackles, 8.5 sacks), however, as the emerging pass rusher has generated five sacks over the last four weeks. The Panthers haven't been very good against the run, giving up an average of 132.6 rushing yards per game (25th overall), and lost another defensive starter when weakside linebacker Jason Williams (16 tackles) was placed on injured reserve Tuesday because of a torn ACL. The team does still have two quality players among the three-man corps in middle linebacker Jon Beason (98 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT) and strongside regular James Anderson (112 tackles, 3.5 sacks, 1 INT), however.
WHEN THE PANTHERS HAVE THE BALL
Carolina doesn't do many things well, especially on offense, but the team is quite proficient at running the football. Since coming back from a concussion sustained last month, powerful back Jonathan Stewart (531 rushing yards, 6 receptions, 3 total TD) has averaged over 100 yards a game and a robust 6.3 yards per carry in three contests and piled up a season-best 133 yards on only 18 attempts against Atlanta's well-regarded defense last Sunday. Speedster Mike Goodson (414 rushing yards, 3 TD, 34 receptions) has shown to be an excellent complement to the physical Stewart as well as an outlet for Clausen (1163 passing yards, 1 TD, 7 INT) as a receiver, trailing only established veteran wideout Steve Smith (41 receptions, 2 TD) for the most catches on the team. Smith has been flanked by a pair of good-sized rookies in David Gettis (29 receptions, 3 TD) and Brandon LaFell (31 receptions, 1 TD), both of whom have had their ups and downs in the NFL's most anemic pass offense (151.1 ypg). All three figure to play secondary roles on Sunday, as the Panthers' plan is to grind it out and help limit Clausen's deficiencies as a thrower.
Defending the run has been an issue for an Arizona squad that's permitting a poor 143.3 rushing yards per game (30th overall) and has surrendered over 150 yards on the ground five times this year. Look for the Cardinals to employ hard-hitting strong safety Adrian Wilson (74 tackles, 2 sacks, 2 INT) closer to the line of scrimmage and help leading tackler Paris Lenon (103 tackles, 1 sack, 2 INT) and rookie and fellow inside linebacker Daryl Washington (60 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT) attempt to neutralize Carolina's talented backfield tandem. The secondary is the strength of an overall disappointing crew, as Wilson, playmaking free safety Kerry Rhodes (74 tackles, 1 sack, 4 INT) and cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie (38 tackles, 2 INT, 11 PD) have all been to the Pro Bowl at some point in their careers, and the Cardinals lead the NFL with seven defensive touchdowns in 2010, with Washington adding to that total last week with an interception that he fumbled in the end zone but was recovered by lineman Darnell Dockett (44 tackles, 2 sacks). Veteran outside linebackers Joey Porter (46 tackles, 5 sacks) and Clark Haggans (39 tackles, 4 sacks) head up a pass rush that'll be out to rattle the shaky Clausen.
With a pair of rookie quarterbacks owning marginal credentials at best, count on the running backs taking center stage in this game. There are three worthy ones to choose from, as both Stewart and Goodson should get plenty of touches to make each usable and Arizona's Hightower is coming off a huge effort last week. Disregard every available receiver with the possible exception of Fitzgerald, however, and you'd be committing fantasy suicide by placing either Skelton or Clausen in lineups. The Cardinals' Jay Feely and the Panthers' John Kasay are each reliable kickers without much upside due to these teams' prolonged offensive woes, meaning there are better options out there. The Arizona defense wouldn't be a bad play, though, considering its knack for producing touchdowns and Carolina's standing as the NFL's lowest-scoring club.
There are a wealth of terrific games on this week's NFL schedule, but this one doesn't qualify as one of them. It should be a competitive one, however, with neither team owning a distinct advantage over the other. At further glance, there does seem to be a few variables that could work in the Panthers' favor. The Cardinals will be making a cross-country start for an early kickoff, a scenario that's often led to disastrous results in the past, and Carolina possesses a superior ground game that shouldn't have a problem putting up yards on a porous Arizona defense. Skelton may be the Cardinals' best option at the quarterback position, but until the rookie proves he's a good one, go with the home team that's playing in its comfort zone that's desperate beyond belief for a win.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Panthers 19, Cardinals 16
12/16 12:24:35 ET