The Carolina Panthers didn’t win a football game for over eight weeks at one point this season and now they are set to host a wild- card playoff game as the favorite.
The NFC South champions will open up the NFL postseason on Saturday against an 11-win Arizona team that will be relying on its third-string quarterback Ryan Lindley.
Despite ping-ponging from Carson Palmer to Drew Stanton back to Palmer and back to Stanton before Lindley due to injuries the Cardinals tied a franchise record with the 11 victories and have won 21 total games in their first two seasons under the likely NFL Coach of the Year, Bruce Arians.
Arizona has also won four of its past six postseason games, including a 33-13 win at Carolina on Jan. 10, 2009 in the divisional round, the only prior matchup between these teams in the playoffs.
“It’s a whole new season now,” Arians said. “We’re all 0-0 and we’re in the tournament. We’re going to get ready for this playoff game. We’re not planning on being one-and-done.”
Few ever plan to be one-and-done but the Cardinals have an uphill battle in trying to avoid that fate.
Arizona comes in having lost two in a row, including a 20-17 Week 17 loss at the 49ers in what turned out to be Jim Harbaugh’s final game as San Francisco’s head coach.
Lindley did throw his first two career touchdown passes to Michael Floyd in the setback and completed 23-of-39 passes for a career-high 316 yards but he also was picked off three times. Floyd, meanwhile, made eight catches for 153 yards and Kerwynn Williams ran it 17 times for 67 yards.
“It’s a loss and no one wants to lose in the NFL, but I think we gained some confidence,” said Lindley. “We ran the ball a lot better this week. We did a great job of pass protection … Floyd had a great day.”
Despite their less-than-stellar record, the Panthers enter the tournament red hot, having won four straight while outscoring opponents 111-43 over that span.
Under head coach Ron Rivera, Carolina became the first team to win back-to- back NFC South division titles after a dominating 34-3 winner-take-all road win at Atlanta last weekend.
In the month of December, the Panthers formula for turning things around was running the football coupled with stingy defense, ranking second in the NFL in both rushing offense (199.3 yards per game) and points allowed (10.8 points per game) during the month.
The Panthers’ defense harassed Ryan all day, piling up six sacks and hurrying the veteran QB into uncharacteristic mistakes, resulting in an overthrown pass that was returned 31 yards for a touchdown by Roman Harper in the second quarter. Later in the third quarter, an underthrown pass was picked by Tre Boston and returned 84 yards to put the game out of reach.
Since 1936, no team has scored fewer points than Arizona over the final six games and still made the playoffs.
The Cardinals have continually called Stanton’s knee injury a sprain. In reality, though, it was a partially torn ACL and a Grade 2 MCL sprain further exacerbated by an infection which had to be drained. He’s not walking through that door at Bank of America Stadium on Saturday to save Arizona.
Carolina, though, is bringing what has been the second best defense in football over the past month.