Arizona Cardinals (13-3) at Carolina Panthers (15-1)
I’ve been saying for pretty much all season that Arizona is better than Carolina, despite Carolina’s better record and their status as the #1 seed in the NFC really from start to finish (they’ve been tied for the best record in the NFC or had the best record in the NFC all season). Arizona obviously has lost more games than the Panthers, 3 to 1, but their margin of victory is much higher, winning their 13 games by an average of 16.92 points per game, while the Panthers’ 15 wins have come by an average of 13.27 points per game.
Arizona also finished the season #1 in rate of moving the chains differential, a statistic in which they led almost all season (Carolina finished 2nd). In two of their three losses they won the first down battle by a combined 20 first downs and only lost because they had a -3 turnover margin in both games. Turnover margins are incredibly inconsistent on a week-to-week basis. On average, teams that have a -3 turnover margin in a game have a +0.1 turnover margin the following game. That’s why I don’t really like to use turnover margin as evidence to support an evaluation of a team.
Carolina finished the season with a better point differential, +192 vs. +176, but they were more reliant on winning the turnover margin, finishing the season at +20, while Arizona finished at +9. Besides, Arizona’s point differential is better if you take out their 3rd loss, a 30 point home loss to the Seattle Seahawks week 17, a game in which the Cardinals didn’t even play their starters in the second half because the Panthers were simultaneously up big over Tampa Bay and on their way to locking up the #1 seed, making Arizona’s game meaningless. On top of that, the Cardinals played a much tougher schedule, as they had the 16th hardest strength of schedule record wise, while the Panthers had the nd easiest.
All of this being said, I’m not that confident in the Cardinals as 3 point road underdogs here for one reason: Tyrann Mathieu. Mathieu was playing at a borderline Defensive Player of the Year level before a week 15 torn ACL ended his season prematurely. Without him, it’s hard to argue that the Cardinals are a significantly better team, which they’d have to be for me to have any real confidence in them as mere field goal underdogs on the road. If this line does move to 3.5 before gametime, I may reconsider, as about 1 in 6 games as decided by exactly a field goal, but this is a low confidence pick for now. If you feel the need to put money on something this weekend, I’d recommend Arizona +145 on the money line.
Arizona Cardinals 24 Carolina Panthers 23 Upset Pick +145
Pick against the spread: Arizona +3