Five matchups that could determine the NFC’s representative in Super Bowl L:
Cam Newton, QB, #1 vs. Deone Bucannon, $B, #20
Bucannon was tasked with playing the “spy” against Russell Wilson in the Cardinals’ Week 17 matchup with the Seahawks. In that role, the Cards held Wilson to his lowest per-carry average of the season. The 6’6”, 260 lbs Newton is going to present a different challenge for Bucannon. Newton presses the middle of the defense more than any other quarterback in the league. Bucannon has to stay disciplined and understand that every second Newton spends in the pocket, behind the line of scrimmage is a win for the defense.
Thomas Davis, OLB, #58 vs. David Johnson, RB, #31
Before Deone Bucannon, there was Thomas Davis. Davis is one tackle behind Luke Kuechly in for the team lead, but has 4.5 more sacks and 2 more forced fumbles. Davis more resembles former Cardinal Karlos Dansby at this point in his career than the unguided missile Bucannon. David Johnson is going to have to find a way to slip past David into the open field in the running game, put a body on Davis in pass-blocking situations, and run crisp routes to create separation on wheel routes.
Ryan Kalil, C, #67 vs. Rodney Gunter, NT, #95
Gunter’s rookie season can only be seen as an unmitigated success. Gunter didn’t exactly make us forget about Dan Williams, but he managed to keep us from talking about him. Gunter played 39.5% of the Cards defensive snaps this year, and he’s earned more snaps as the season has gone on — playing more than 40% of the snaps against Green Bay. But Gunter hasn’t seen an opponent as good as Kalil. The All-Pro Center is in his absolute prime and the tone-setter for an overperforming Carolina offensive line.
Star Lotulelei, DT, #98 vs. Mike Iupati, LG, #76
The Carolina defense isn’t fearsome because of their pass rush (11th in the NFL in Adjusted Sack Rate is good but not great) but because the run defense is stingy. The defensive line is a handful and keeps the linebackers clean to flow to the ball. Lotulelei doesn’t play half of Carolina’s snaps, but when he’s in, the Arizona guards must be able to handle him one-on-one to let the tight ends, center, and running back pick up additional blitzers or get to the second level. Something else to watch for: Carolina is 32nd in the NFL in power situations (≤2 yards to go on 3rd or 4th down or any down on the 1 or 2 yard line), while the Cards are 29th offensively in the same situation. The Cards are going to have to convert some 3rd and mediums on the ground to win this game.
Greg Olsen, TE, #88 vs. Tony Jefferson, S, #22
Defensive Coordinator James Bettcher will throw a lot of looks at Mike Shula, but this is probably the matchup that Bettcher wants most of the time. Arizona’s defense is unique in that it works from the outside in — man coverage from the perimeter allows flexibility in coverage assignments in the middle of the field. Carolina’s offense works from the inside out — starting with Jonathan Stewart, Cam Newton, and Matt Kalil to Olsen to a pedestrian wide receiver corps. Olsen (6’6”, 254 lbs — that’s right, he’s smaller than Cam Newton) is a size mismatch for Jefferson (5’11”, 213 lbs). Jefferson will likely have linebacker help underneath and Rashad Johnson over the top. That said, Jefferson needs to be able to hold his own in the middle area of the field.