These teams have been headed in opposite directions lately, with Carolina winning four in a row and Arizona losing four of six.
Because of injuries, the Cardinals are down to third-string quarterback Ryan Lindley, who threw the first two touchdown passes of his NFL career in the regular-season finale, a 20-17 loss at San Francisco.
Cam Newton leads the Panthers, having recovered sufficiently from a rollover car accident that caused two fractures in his back. He led his team to consecutive NFC South titles for the first time in franchise history, even though the 7-8-1 Panthers are only the second team to win its division with a losing record.
The Panthers have long searched for the right combination of players in their secondary, and they seemed to have found it. In the last four games, their defense has limited opposing quarterbacks to an average passer rating of 64.6, second to Seattle in the NFC. Carolina has surrendered 43 points during that span, second in the league to Seattle's 33.
One change: in the final quarter of the season, the Panthers started a pair of rookies, cornerback Bene Benwikere and safety Tre Boston, and that has worked well for them.
These teams played at Arizona in Week 5 last season. The Cardinals sacked Cam Newton seven times — including once for a safety — and intercepted three of his passes. Although much of the defensive personnel is different (the Cardinals have been ravaged on that side of the ball), Arizona defensive coordinator Todd Bowles unquestionably knows how to draw up a game plan to exploit Newton's weaknesses.
Recalled Newton of that 22-6 defeat: "One thing that I remember is that we had somewhat of a lackluster performance, whether you want to call it those guys doing their job better than we did ours, what have you. We lost and that's pretty much it."
It's no snap
Lindley showed significant improvement from his first start of the season, completing 40.9% of his throws against Seattle, to his second, 58.9% against the 49ers.
"He was in a comfort zone," Cardinals Coach Bruce Arians explained this week of the statistical uptick. "Then you could see his leadership come out. He started talking in the huddle more and guys started responding. It was a nice step forward."
Lindley is 1-5 as a starter, his lone victory coming in one of his four starts as a rookie in 2012.
By the numbers
How teams compare statistically. All stats are per-game averages, except for sacks and turnover differential, which are for the season (league rank in parentheses):
Arizona | Carolina
Points scored: 19.4 (24) | 21.2 (19)
Points allowed: 18.7 (5) | 23.4 (21)
Pass offense: 238.0 (14) | 219.4 (19)
Rush offense: 81.8 (31) | 127.2 (7)
Pass defense: 259.5 (29) | 227.8 (11)
Rush defense: 108.7 (13) | 112.0 (16)
Sacks: 35 (24) | 40 (13)
Penalty yards: 74.5 (32) | 47.5 (5)
Turnovers: +8 (5) | +3 (13)
Watch for an upset here. If the Cardinals can rattle Newton the way they did last season, and contain running back Jonathan Stewart — both doable — Arizona could kick off these playoffs in a dramatic way. Look for Arians to play conservatively with Lindley while still allowing him to take some shots downfield from time to time.