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NFC championship game preview: It's been let up and go for the Panthers

NFC championship game preview: It's been let up and go for the Panthers
When the NFC title game is over, either Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer (3) or Panthers QB Cam Newton (1) will be heading to their first Super Bowl. (Associated Press)

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.

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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.

"Guys were playing with their butts tight, coaches with their butts tight and at one point, the fans and myself were butt-tight too," Panthers quarterback Cam Newton said of Sunday's comeback by the visiting team.

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."

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Close calls

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

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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*

* overtime

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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.

The play of the Arizona offensive line was especially poor in those games.

"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.

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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)

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Farmer's pick

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

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