Cruise control is killing Carolina.
The Panthers, who play host to Arizona at 3:40 p.m. PST Sunday in the NFC championship game that will be broadcast on FOX, are the best team in football through three quarters . . . but then they tend to coast.
They built a 31-0 lead in the first half against Seattle last Sunday in the divisional playoffs, but the Seahawks answered with 24 points in the second half.
That’s a trend for the Panthers, who had leads of 17, 23, 28 and 31 points in other games this season, and saw each of them finish as one-score games.
Carolina Coach Ron Rivera suggested people might be making too much of the Panthers’ taking their foot off the accelerator, and not giving enough credit to the teams that mounted those comebacks.
“I’ll be honest, I get it, I understand. But shoot, we won those football games, and look who we played against,” Rivera told reporters this week. “If this was someone that was 2-14 that did this to us, then I’d be really concerned. But it wasn’t. Am I concerned? Yeah. But are these things correctable and fixable? Most certainly.
“Let’s stay focused on what we did. We did some really good things. We made some things happen. And we won the football game.”
Arizona needed overtime last weekend to knock off Green Bay. Carolina blew out Seattle in the first half, but the Seahawks clawed their way back into the game in the second and at least made it interesting.
If history is a guide, the NFC championship game will be close. Eight consecutive NFC title games have been decided by seven points or fewer — the longest such streak in the history of the conference championship games — and four went to overtime.
NFC CHAMPIONSHIP GAMES
2014 at Seattle 28, Green Bay 22*
2013 at Seattle 23, San Francisco 17
2012 San Francisco 28, at Atlanta 24
2011 N.Y. Giants 20, at San Fran. 17*
2010 Green Bay 21, at Chicago 14
2009 at New Orleans 31, Minn. 28*
2008 at Arizona 32, Philadelphia 25
2007 N.Y. Giants 23, at Green Bay 20*
Running on empty
Even after losing Chris Johnson, Arizona had a strong running game this season, finishing eighth in yards per game with 119.8. But in the finale against Seattle and the playoff opener against the Packers, the Cardinals struggled to gain yards on the ground, generating a combined 67 yards in 32 carries.
“It’s not anything David is doing,” Coach Bruce Arians said this week, referring to rookie running back David Johnson. “There’s just not a lot of holes there and we have to do a better job. It’s a tough challenge this week.”
Carolina is stout against the run, ranking fourth this season with a stingy average of 88.4 yards per game.
By the numbers
How the teams compare statistically. All stats are regular-season per-game averages, except for turnover differential, which is for the season (league rank in parentheses):
STATISTICS: ARI | CAR
Points scored: 30.6 (2) | 31.2 (1)
Points allowed: 19.6 (T7) | 19.2 (6)
Pass offense: 288.5 (2) | 224.3 (24)
Rush offense: 119.8 (8) | 142.6 (2)
Pass defense: 230.4 (8) | 234.5 (11)
Rush defense: 91.2 (6) | 88.4 (4)
Sacks: 36 (T20) | 44 (6)
Penalty yards: 47.4 (1) | 55.4 (14)
Turnovers: +9 (4) | +20 (1)
Even though the Cardinals haven’t gotten solid play out of their offensive line the last two games, and expected sloppy conditions could further hamper the ground game, they match up well against Carolina. Carson Palmer has an array of speedy receiving threats who can challenge the Panthers defense. The Panthers have fewer receiving weapons, and that could allow Arizona to put an extra defender in the box to stop the run.
CARDINALS 27, PANTHERS 24