Arizona Cardinals (10-7) at Carolina Panthers (12-4)
KICKOFF: Saturday, 8:15 ET
TV: FOX (Kenny Albert, Daryl Johnston, Tony Siragusa)
SERIES: 9th meeting. Panthers lead series 6-2. The Panthers have won five straight against Arizona under coach John Fox, including a 27-23 win on Oct. 26. In that game, Steve Smith caught five passes for 117 yards and two touchdowns, while DeAngelo Williams ran for 108 yards and one score as the Panthers overcame a 17-3 second-half deficit. This is the first postseason meeting between the two teams.
PREDICTION: Panthers 31-27
KEYS TO THE GAME: The Cardinals have done a better job of incorporating the ground game the past two weeks with RB Edgerrin James showing fresh legs. They need to sustain drives knowing the Panthers have a run-based offense, but the Cardinals still don't give James consistent carries. Arizona's chances hinge on its ability to protect QB Kurt Warner. Carolina has given up 178 first downs through the air and 19 passing touchdowns, and Warner threw for 381 yards in the first meeting. However, Warner's downfield arsenal would take a significant hit if WR Anquan Boldin is unable to play. ...
The Cardinals' front seven limited Falcons RB Michael Turner to 42 rushing yards last weekend by using the home-field advantage to fly off the ball. Arizona has to find a way to generate a similar push on the road against RBs DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart. Panthers QB Jake Delhomme is generally considered streaky, but his 95.0 career postseason passer rating ranks third all-time behind only Bart Starr and Joe Montana among players with at least 150 attempts. Arizona will need to use eight men against the run, leaving CBs Rod Hood and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie to hold their own in a lot of man coverage.
KEY INJURIES: Cardinals: Boldin (hamstring) is likely a game-day decision; DE Travis LaBoy (ankle) and TEs Ben Patrick (knee) and Leonard Pope (knee sprain) are uncertain. Panthers: DT Maake Kemoeatu (ankle) and RT Jeff Otah (ankle) will play.
FAST FACTS: Arizona was 0-5 in the Eastern time zone in the regular season, losing by a combined 99 points. ... Warner is 37-11 lifetime as a start indoors compared to 21-33 outside.
--QB Kurt Warner has managed the past two games well, as the offense has shifted away from the passing game a bit. Warner has benefited from the improved running game, and has been productive with play-action. That was a key to the Cardinals' last success last week against the Falcons.
--RB Edgerrin James has gained 173 yards on 30 carries in the past two games as the team's featured back. James has looked fresh and quick and has been breaking tackles in the secondary, something he didn't do earlier this season.
--WR Anquan Boldin likely will be questionable for Sunday's game with a hamstring injury. Boldin didn't practice all week, and might be limited to a situational role if he does play. He will be a game-time decision.
--DE Travis LaBoy practiced all week after missing the past three games with an ankle injury. LaBoy is expected to play.
--CB Ralph Brown, the team's nickel corner, has intercepted passes in the first quarters of the past two games. Brown has done a nice job of playing the slot receiver, and his work in the film has paid off with forced turnovers.
--TE Ben Patrick aggravated a knee injury last week and probably won't play in Carolina. Leonard Pope and Stephen Spach are healthy and should be the two active tight ends.
--RT Jeff Otah (ankle) will start for the Panthers after participating full in practice the last two days.
--RG Geoff Hangartner (ankle) was the only player on the team who didn't practice Thursday full. He was limited.
--WR Steve Smith has five touchdowns in the past three games vs. Arizona.
--QB Jake Delhomme has the highest yards per pass attempt (8.55 yards) in the postseason of any quarterback in NFL history.
--RG Jeremy Bridges will probably end up starting for the Panthers over Geoff Hangartner.
INSIDE THE CAMPS
In the last meeting on Oct. 26, the Arizona Cardinals attempted to spread the Panthers defense using quite a few four receiver sets.
Part of that was because tight ends Leonard Pope and Ben Patrick were inactive. Both remain on Arizona's injury report this week, too.
"In that game two of their three tight ends were inactive so they only had one tight end available," coach John Fox said. "Those are things you don't know until an hour-and-a-half before kickoff, so from a preparation standpoint we didn't prepare as much for that as we have this time around. Like everything, you have to adjust and we adjusted just well enough to win. Hopefully this time around we're a little better prepared."
Look for cornerbacks Richard Marshall and either Dante Wesley or C.J. Wilson to see more action given the Cardinals' penchant for throwing the football.
Fox said even if wide receiver Anquan Boldin (hamstring) sits out Saturday night, he doesn't expect it will change Arizona's game plan.
"I don't think it will," Fox said. "Jerheme Urban will take his place and Early Doucet will take Urban's place."
In injury news, guard Geoff Hangartner returned to practice on a limited basis Thursday, meaning he has a chance to play this week. Everyone else practiced full, including offensive tackle Jeff Otah and defensive tackles Maake Kemoeatu and Damione Lewis.
Clearly Fox is thrilled to have Lewis and Kemoeatu back in the middle of his defense after both missed the Week 17 game against New Orleans.
"If you took Muhsin Muhammad and Steve Smith out of the lineup on offense it would look a little different," Fox said. "It'd no different on defense when you take your two starting defensive tackles out. Hopefully they are prepared and ready."