In the immortal words of Jack Bauer, there’s no more time. The Carolina Panthers are facing a must-win scenario coming out of their bye, hosting the Arizona Cardinals in a rematch of the NFC Championship Game. Remarkably, the Panthers (1) and Cardinals (3) both have the same number of wins as they had losses all of last year.Both teams are struggling, with Carolina managing just a single win and coming off of two incredibly disappointing losses to division rivals before its bye. Arizona managed to tie Seattle 6-6 on Sunday night and now also needs a win here, thanks to Seattle maintaining a strong lead in the NFC West.The biggest concern should be Carson Palmer’s performance against a defense that has thus far struggled all season Carolina’s allowed multiple 500-yard passing games this season.For the Panthers, it’s critical to see signs of life from the defense coming out of the bye week or else 2016 could move from “hanging by a very fine thread” to “completely unraveled.”Keys to the gameEach of last season’s NFC title game participants has been a disappointment so far in 2016, but the Panthers come in with the biggest issue. That’s a defense that ranks 29th in scoring, 24th in total yards and 26th in passing yards allowed. Fortunately for Carolina, the Cardinals’ have a middle-of-the-pack passing attack led by QB Carson Palmer, who could help the Panthers’ struggling pass rush get back into form. DEs Charles Johnson and Kony Ealy need to get Palmer off his spot to help out a struggling secondary. The Panthers also need to bottle up the running skills of RB David Johnson, who leads the NFL in total yards from scrimmage.Look for the Cardinals to test the Panthers’ secondary, even though that position group is getting healthier. Arizona would like to establish a rushing attack, which has gained 475 yards in its past three games and came against two of the top-rushing defense in the league in the Jets and Seahawks.The Cardinals’ second-ranked defense is especially salty against the pass, but QB Cam Newton and company piled up 335 passing yards in January’s NFC Championship Game. But Arizona didn’t have S Tyrann Mathieu or OLB Chandler Jones for that game, so this is a much tougher test. If the Panthers’ offensive line limits the Cardinals’ potent pass rush, Newton will likely send plenty of targets to TE Greg Olsen, who won’t be covered by Pro Bowl CB Patrick Peterson.Matchups to watchâ¢ Cardinals WR Larry Fitzgerald vs. Panthers LB Shaq Thompson. Fitzgerald is tied for third in the NFL with 46 receptions. When the Panthers used Thompson in the slot during the NFC Championship Game, he helped hold Fitzgerald to four catches for 30 yards.â¢ Panthers OT Mike Remmers vs. Cardinals OLB Chandler Jones. Remmers likely will get his fourth straight start on the left side, drawing a tough assignment in Jones, who has five sacks in seven games. With Michael Oher still in the concussion protocol, Remmers should see plenty of work against Jones, and that’s not a matchup in the Panthers’ favor.Player spotlightPanthers DE Charles Johnson. Second on the Panthers’ all-time list with 64 sacks, the 10-year veteran has just half a sack this season. But he has great numbers against the Cardinals, racking up nine sacks in eight meetings.Fast factsThis is a rematch of last season’s NFC title game, won by Carolina 49-15. … Cardinals RB David Johnson had 171 scrimmage yards in Week 7 and is aiming for his eighth straight game with 100 scrimmage yards. He leads the NFL with 1,004 and also is tied for the lead with eight rushing TDs. … Cardinals LB Markus Golden has four sacks in his past three road games. LB Chandler Jones had a sack and forced fumble in Week 7. He had a sack in the last meeting. Panthers QB Cam Newton threw for 322 yards and scored three touchdowns in Week 6. In the NFC title game, he threw for 355 yards and two TDs and also ran for two scores.
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