In his words, the Panthers are the better team.
“Yeah, we’re better," Harper said. “We’ve just got to go out there and play. I feel like we’re the best team. We’ve been the best team all year long. We’re not going to shy away from that."
Here are three things the Panthers have to do in Sunday’s 6:40 p.m. ET game to prove they’re the better team:
Start fast: Carolina has outscored its past five opponents 111-17 in the first half. That includes a 31-0 blitzkrieg of Seattle in last week’s divisional playoff game. The Panthers ranked second during the regular season with an average of 6.6 points in the first quarter. That number goes up to 7.7 in home games. The fast start typically means quarterback Cam Newton and the no-huddle offense are in rhythm, which is important. Fast starts are a big reason the Panthers have lost only one game. Slow starts have been a pattern for the Cardinals in their three losses. They scored a combined 25 points in those games. They were outscored 30-6 by Seattle in their regular-season finale. It’s important for Carolina to take advantage of the home-field crowd and get momentum from the start to force Carson Palmer into playing catch-up.
Don’t get blitzed: The Cardinals blitz more than any other team (45 percent of the time) in the NFL. Panthers quarterback Cam Newton has an NFL-best 19 touchdown passes against the blitz this season. He has a career-high 59.2 completion percentage against the blitz. Newton and the Panthers must win this battle or it’ll be a long day, as it was in 2013 when Newton threw three interceptions and fumbled once against the Cardinals’ blitz. The blitz should create opportunities for the Carolina receivers. Arizona often sends a defensive back, which means man coverage. This could be an opportunity for Ted Ginn Jr., who leads Carolina receivers with 10 touchdown catches, to get open deep. It also could mean running back Jonathan Stewart has opportunities with screen plays.
Stop Fitzgerald: If you assume the Panthers will stop the run, as they have most of the season, that makes Arizona wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald the prime target. Fitzgerald had 175 yards receiving, including his 75-yarder in overtime, against Green Bay last week. Shut Fitzgerald and the run down and odds are you shut down the Cardinals. Fitzgerald lines up in the slot about half of the time, so he’ll likely get paired against nickelback Cortland Finnegan a lot. That’s not an ideal matchup for Carolina. Finnegan is 5-foot-10 and Fitzgerald is 6-3. Don’t be surprised if middle linebacker Luke Kuechly gives Finnegan some help. Josh Norman likely will draw Fitzgerald when he lines up outside. That is a good matchup for the Panthers because Norman has done a solid job all season of shutting down the opposing team’s No. 1 receiver. The Panthers simply can’t let Fitzgerald have a big day and leave saying they are the better team.