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Tuesday, January 6, 2009
Pregame debate: Cardinals or Panthers?


Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando and Pat Yasinskas

NFC South blogger Pat Yasinskas dropped by for a little pregame debate heading into the Cardinals-Panthers divisional playoff game Saturday. We chose the topics and we invite you to pull up a chair and join us in discussing which team has the advantage in certain areas.

Warner Delhomme
Q. Kurt Warner and Jake Delhomme are the two best undrafted quarterbacks of our time. Both have been to the Super Bowl and held up over time. Which veteran quarterback would you rather have right now?

Pat Yasinskas: I'll take Delhomme because he is what he is. He's the perfect quarterback in Carolina's system and that system is working to perfection right now. That means the Panthers are back to being a running team. There's not a lot of pressure on Delhomme and that's when he's at his best and most dangerous. Since defenses have to worry so much about the running game, Delhomme can look for Steve Smith in a good matchup. Sometimes Smith in double coverage is a good matchup. As long as Delhomme can get Smith the ball seven or eight times, he'll be in great shape.

Warner's had a very nice season. But I think, with Arizona's system and receivers, any NFL quarterback (except Matt Leinart) could have put up those same numbers. Warner's old and not even close to what he was early this decade when he was a product of the system in "The Greatest Show on Turf."

  Roaring to the playoffs
  NFL.com Video
  Look back at the sights and sounds of the Panthers' ride to the No. 2 seed in the NFC playoffs.

Mike Sando: Delhomme should have the advantage backed by the home crowd and that rock-solid running game, but Warner is clearly the better fit for the Cardinals' wide-open passing game. And there's no way "any NFL quarterback" but Matt Leinart could match Warner's numbers in this system. Warner's numbers hold up against the best numbers in NFL history. That makes him more than just a product of the system. The Cardinals couldn't run this offense in its 2008 form with most quarterbacks.

Warner is highly accurate and his experience helps him get rid of the football before he takes sacks. Delhomme finished this season with 15 touchdown passes and 12 interceptions. Trent Edwards and Seneca Wallace had higher ratings. Warner had 12 touchdown passes with no interceptions in third quarters alone. And he did it without a single Pro Bowl player on his offensive line and virtually no help from the running game.

In watching Warner every week, it's clear he can play at an MVP level within this offense. He just needs protection and a little help with play selection to win in the playoffs.

The better teams started getting to Warner late in the regular season. The Cardinals fell in love with their four-receiver offense at the expense of a running game, and it caught up to them a little bit, in my view. Warner started looking a little older. The pressure of the opposing pass rush, coupled with the pressure of carrying the offense, seemed to wear on Warner, revealing his age.

The emergence of a running threat over the last two games has helped Warner stabilize his play. I have no problem siding with Warner in this matchup based on his performance against Carolina in Week 8, his success in past playoffs (6-2 postseason record as a starter) and the security blanket he enjoys in Larry Fitzgerald.

Q. The Cardinals clearly rely on the passing game while the Panthers are a run-first team. Which is the better way to win in the playoffs?

Pat Yasinskas: John Fox is old school and his run-first philosophy has been good enough for a 5-2 career record in the postseason. His team always has been built around the run and it's better suited now than ever to see that through. DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart each give the Panthers a running back who can go for over 100 yards and they open things up enough to keep the passing game effective. Most important of all, Fox's offense keeps the defense fresh.

That's going to be important against the Cardinals. The Panthers need fresh legs to be able to stay with Arizona's talented trio of receivers. More importantly, they need fresh legs from Julius Peppers and his friends up front to put the heat on Warner and show his flaws -- aging legs and a tendency to make mistakes when pressured.

Mike Sando: Most teams with strong ground games still need their quarterbacks to make plays down the field to win in the playoffs. Teams with all-time great defenses can sometimes advance without as much help from their quarterbacks, but the Cardinals and Panthers aren't among those teams.

For as much as the Cardinals have relied on the passing game this season, they wouldn't have beaten the Falcons in the wild-card round without establishing the threat of a running game. Warner completed all eight of his play-action pass attempts for 121 yards, one touchdown and a perfect 158.3 passer rating against Atlanta. He couldn't do that if the Falcons weren't worried about Edgerrin James.

Most teams need at least the appearance of balance. Extreme deficiencies in either area tend to prove costly.

 
  Bruce Kluckhohn/US Presswire
  There's no arguing that Carolina's Steve Smith is one of the best receivers in the NFL. But will he be the best on the field in the Panthers-Cardinals divisional playoff game Saturday night?
Q. We've got a virtual cast of all-stars at wide receiver in this game. Who's the best wide receiver on the field?

Pat Yasinskas: It's hard to argue with Arizona's talent or overall strength in numbers. But I'm going to take Steve Smith. The little man always seems to be at his best in big games. And you can bet all this talk about Arizona's trio of great receivers already has gotten into his head.

Smith seeks out things to motivate him and the Arizona receivers are like a room-service order. In Smith's mind, he'll be slighted all week as everyone talks about Arizona. Then, on Saturday, he'll be on an all-out mission to prove he's the best wide receiver on the field.

Mike Sando: I would never argue against Steve Smith in any debate about playmaking wide receivers, but I do think Larry Fitzgerald needs representation in this conversation. Fitzgerald can make seemingly impossible plays on the ball, as can Smith, but he also has the size to beat tight coverage consistently. And his improvement as a route runner has taken his game to another level.

If Smith is the NFL's most dangerous receiver with the ball in his hands, Fitzgerald is the most dangerous receiver when the ball's in the air. No receiver in the league wins at the football the way Fitzgerald does. That's one reason he has more touchdown receptions than Smith despite playing in 30 fewer games.