The Tom Brady-Peyton Manning matchup in the AFC title game is rich with history, but the NFC conference championship has MVP candidates vying for their first career Super Bowl appearance.
Cam Newton of the Panthers led his team to a 15-1 record in the regular season and was as much a threat with his arm (3,837 yards and 35 touchdowns) as he was with his legs (636 yards and 10 touchdowns). The game charters at Pro Football Focus were impressed, rating him as the third-best player at the position; ESPN’s Total Quarterback Rating placed him ninth among 33 qualified passers (66.1).
However, Newton could cause problems for Arizona’s defense if it decides to go after him with the blitz.
According to NFL.com, the Cardinals led the league in blitz frequency, blitzing opponents on 44.5 percent of pass plays. Newton had 19 touchdowns against the blitz, and saw his passer rating increase from 112.8 to 118.1 under those circumstances. He wasn’t as good against a traditional pass rush: Under that circumstance, Newton saw a decline in completion percentage (64.5 to 50.3 percent), yards per attempt (8.0 to 7.1) and overall passer rating (112.2 to 68.0).
Palmer has no such weakness. In dropbacks without pressure, his passer rating was a robust 110.9. That dropped slightly to 92.2 under pressure and 95.1 when facing a blitz. His yards per attempt were higher in both pressure (9.2) and blitz (9.4) situations than when he faced no pressure (8.4).
Palmer also ranked No. 1 in QBR (82.1) and by Pro Football Focus, passing both the stats and eye test as the better passer.
Arizona also has the better receiving corps. Larry Fitzgerlad and John Brown were both rated in the top 25 by Pro Football Focus, with Fitzgerald producing the ninth-most yards per route run (2.19). Brown and Michael Floyd give Palmer two deep targets, making Arizona one of three NFL teams with two receivers who can stretch the field. Jacksonville (Allen Hurns and Allen Robinson) and Pittsburgh (Antonio Brown and Martavis Bryant) are the others.
Carolina’s best pass-catcher is tight end Greg Olsen, who was the team’s most-targeted player overall (129) and in the red zone (21). But after that, it gets weak. Devin Funchess averages 2.03 yards per route run, Jerricho Cotchery 1.96 and Ted Ginn Jr. 1.88. Philly Brown and Ginn combined for 486 yards on targets 20 or more yards downfield. Brown, by comparison, had 370 deep yards by himself.
Whenever two MVP candidates collide in a winner-take-all game you expect both to play at their best, but based on everything we know, Arizona has the edge under center.