Arizona Cardinals (11-5) at Carolina Panthers (7-8-1)
The Panthers went into Atlanta last week and won 34-3, winning the NFC South and securing a home playoff game with a record of 7-8-1. After the game, Tony Dungy remarked that he believed the Panthers could go into Seattle and knock off the Seahawks the way they’re playing right now. That’s slightly hyperbolic, but I don’t disagree with his pro-Panthers sentiment. I was actually rooting for Seattle to lose and Arizona to win (even though I took Seattle -13 for a no confidence pick) early in those two games when they scenario was happening because I felt we could get a lot of line value with the Panthers as likely touchdown home underdogs to the Seahawks, who would fall to the 5th seed if they lost and Arizona won.
Unfortunately, Seattle did win and Arizona ended up losing anyway. Now Carolina hosts the Cardinals, which is a much easier matchup for them, but we’re not getting nearly as much line value with the Panthers as we would with them as touchdown home underdogs to Seattle. Still, the Panthers do seem like the right side here. The public is split, understanding that the Panthers are playing good football right now and understanding that the Cardinals are not the same team without Carson Palmer and even without Drew Stanton, but hesitant to lay a bunch of points with the Panthers. Despite the public’s hesitance and ambivalence, the line has moved from 4.5 to 6 and even 6.5 in some places over the past couple of days, suggesting heavy sharp action on the host.
I understand why the sharps are doing so and I agree with them. Aside from Seattle, Carolina is the hottest team in football coming into the playoffs. They’ve won 4 straight games and their rate of moving the chains differential when adjusted for strength of schedule is the 2nd best among playoff teams over the past 4 games, only trailing Seattle. In general, they’ve been great since the bye, only losing in Minnesota in a game that Carolina had a highly fluky two punts blocked and returned for touchdowns, the first time anything like that had happening in about 40 years.
Over those past 5 games since their bye, they’ve moved the chains at a 77.38% rate, as opposed to 61.98% for their opponents. The biggest difference is they’ve had Jonathan Stewart come back healthy and rush for 486 yards on 91 carries (5.34 YPA) and defensive coordinator Sean McDermott is finally once again getting the most out of his defense, despite massive personnel turnover from last season. Their schedule has been very easy over those past 5 games, as none of those 5 teams made the playoffs, but, as I mentioned earlier, even when adjusting for strength of schedule, they’re still a red hot team coming into the post-season. They’re outplaying these non-playoff teams far more than the average team does.
Besides, it’s not like Arizona is really playing like a playoff team right now. In terms of rate of moving the chains differential on the season, the Cardinals are the worst among teams who made the playoffs and even when you take strength of schedule into account, they’re only 0.01% ahead of Cincinnati for 11th out of 12 playoff teams. On the season, they moved the chains at a 69.70% rate, as opposed to 69.83% for their opponents, a differential of -0.13% that ranks 17th in the NFL.
Even Carolina is ranked 14th on the season, moving the chains at a 73.64% rate, as opposed to 72.50% for their opponents, a differential of 1.14%. Arizona’s 11-5 record has been buoyed by a 4-1 record in games decided by a touchdown or less and their +11 point differential is 2nd worst among qualifying playoff teams, only ahead of these Panthers and that doesn’t even tell the whole story. The Cardinals have benefitted from tough to sustain things like a 62.07% rate of recovering fumbles (best in the NFL), a +8 turnover margin, and a +4 return touchdown margin, while the Panthers recover just 50.00% of their fumbles, have just a -3 turnover margin, and a -2 return touchdown margin.
Also, while the Panthers are the 2nd hottest team coming into the playoffs, the Cardinals are the coldest, by a long-shot. Their defense has been above average over the past 4 games, as it has been all season, but their offense has moved the chains at a rate -4.67% worse than expected given their strength of schedule over the past 4 games, which makes sense, considering they’re down to their 3rd quarterback. On the season, they’ve moved the chains at a 73.58% rate in games started by Carson Palmer and a 67.03% rate in games started by other quarterbacks.
They’ve also been worse on the road than at home this season, particularly without Palmer, moving the chains at a 68.83% rate, as opposed to 69.53% for their opponents, a differential of -0.70%. That might not seem horrible, but in games started by quarterbacks other than Carson Palmer, they move the chains at a 64.02% rate on the road. Lindley had a decent performance in San Francisco last week against a banged up San Francisco defense, as he completed 23 of 39 for 316 yards, 2 touchdowns, and 3 interceptions, moving the chains at a 80.00% rate, which should give Arizona fans some hope, but this is still a quarterback that completes 50.8% of his passes for 4.98 YPA, 2 touchdowns, and 11 interceptions in his career over 264 attempts. Quarterbacks are 11-22 ATS since 2002 in their first post-season start anyway. Bruce Arians gets the most out of his quarterbacks, but I’m still going with the sharps and taking Carolina at 6 before this line gets any higher.
Carolina Panthers 20 Arizona Cardinals 9
Pick against the spread: Carolina -6