ESPN has been broadcasting sports programming for the past 35 years, has a long-standing NFL relationship, and broadcasts Monday Night Football weekly throughout the regular season. But ESPN has never shown an NFL playoff game on the network, a streak that will come to an end on Saturday with the airing of the Carolina Panthers-Arizona Cardinals game at 4:35 ET. ESPN gained the rights to broadcast one wild-card game per season as part of an eight-year extension it agreed upon with the NFL in 2011. The extension went into effect this spring.
The Carolina Panthers aren’t even supposed to be here. At just 7-8-1, they enter the Wild Card round of the playoffs as unlikely NFC South winners on a hot streak. Facing the Arizona Cardinals could increase their odds at winning a playoff game, too, since the Cards’ will begin the playoffs with their third string quarterback under center. It could be an ugly clash, but it also gives both of these teams a shot at sneaking out of the first round – something that ultimately could make for an extremely entertaining game.
Carolina Panthers tickets on ScoreBig.com are just $149 on average ($57 to get in), and that may have a lot to do with Carolina winning just seven games and hosting a team that doesn’t have a proven quarterback. It’s the same story for Arizona Cardinals tickets, which only see a minor increase from their season average despite this easily being their biggest game of the year. While both teams have some clear issues, there is major value to be had in what could end up being a vastly under-hyped defensive battle.
Arizona started the season as one of the league’s best teams, ripping off a 9-1 record before losing starting quarterback Carson Palmer to a torn ACL. Thanks to an elite defense, the Cards’ were able to hold onto a playoff spot and enter the league’s tourney with a solid 11-5 record.
Whether or not the ride ends in the wild card round or not may depend on what Ryan Lindley can do against a Carolina Panthers defense that has stepped up in a big way over the last several weeks.
The Cardinals have faced the Panthers 13 times in team history, with the most recent battle resulting in a 22-6 win for Arizona in 2013. The last meaningful game ended in a 33-13 Arizona win in the playoffs, however that game took place in 2009. Now Arizona heads into Carolina with Lindley trying to do anything he can to keep the defense honest to try to help the running game get established. Regardless of what the offense can or can’t accomplish, though, this game undoubtedly depends on Arizona’s defense stifling Cam Newton and co. on the road.
Stopping Newton and the NFC South champs in Carolina isn’t an easy task, as the Panthers have been a solid 4-4 at home and enter the wild card round with a nice four-game winning streak. Over that span, the Panthers have transformed from a team that didn’t belong in the playoffs, into one that just might be able to make a deep run. Carolina’s once elite defense has restored order and Jonathan Stewart has ignited a shaky rushing attack. If everything we’ve seen to this point rings true, the Panthers could potentially hold the upper hand at home.
History hasn’t been kind to the Panthers in this series, with Arizona taking two straight and three of the last five. The Panthers are a different team now than they were the last time these two teams faced, though, as their defense has turned into a nasty group and their offense is suddenly clicking again. If the Panthers can force Lindley into trying to win the game, the Cardinals will be playing right into their hands.