At this point in the season there just isn't much new to talk about when it coming to game planning and key match-ups. Every game it's pretty much the same for the Panthers: run the ball, throw the ball to Smitty, avoid turnovers on offense, create turnovers on defense. Here's a look at what I think will or could affect the outcome of the game
The Steve Smith Factor - This is a no-brainer of course but Smitty's match-up may take a new twist. Cardinals CB Rod Hood has drawn the assignment of covering Smith the last two times these teams have met and in both games Smith had big games, including 117 yards and 2 TD's earlier this season. It's obvious that Hood cannot contain Smith so the Cardinals may decide to match-up their rookie phenom Dominique-Rodgers Cromartie (DRC) on him. DRC has a bright future ahead of him but I bet he learns a thing or two Saturday night if that's his draw. There will be a huge focus on the running game by the Cardinals making even more important that the Panthers not only get Smith involved but that he lives up to his ‘playmaker' moniker. Smitty scoring will be a big de-motivator for the Cardinal defense and should as always be a key focus of the Panther offense.
Home Crowd - The Charlotte wine-and-cheese crowd is slowly learning how to rumble during a NFL game and I bet this game sets a new precedent. If anyone attending this game can't get excited and make some noise get your pulse checked. If you have a pulse then take a flask of Expresso and a bull horn or something. The defense will need the crowd to make life as difficult as possible for the Cardinals offense to stay in synch. They are prone to penalties as well so that could be a factor from the noise.
Avoiding an early deficit - You might recall from the first game the Cardinals got out to a 10-0 lead after a Jake sack and fumble led to a Cardinals TD. The lead grew to 17-3 early in the 3rd quarter before Panther heroics led to the come back and eventual win. Though the Panthers have shown a knack for overcoming early deficits this season we really don't need a repeat of that scenario. The Panthers first four possessions in that game resulted in 2 first downs, 3 punts and a fumble. That sucks. I think the problem was that the Panthers had decided to throw the ball more than run as they attempted 10 passes and only 5 runs (1 by Smith) on those first four drives. I think the Panthers should turn that around this time and run the ball first, pass second. If it can work against the Giants it should work against the Cardinals.
Field Position - In searching for additional statistical differences between these two teams beyond the obvious running vs. passing differences I see a big one in field position. Panthers kick-off specialist Rhys Lloyd leads the NFL in touchbacks and P Jason Baker has 30 punts inside the 20 yard line whereas Cardinals punters D Johnson/Ben Graham only had 20 combined. Graham is new to the team, an import from Australia who might not be used to such a hostile environment. If the Panthers can keep the Cardinals pinned back then that only helps the Panthers ‘bend-don't-break defense'.
Bad Weather - Cardinal fans seem to loathe bad weather as it must affect their ability to pass the ball. It makes sense but I doubt we will get much of a down pour this time of year. On the other hand the forecast is for rain (60% chance) so that can only help a run-oriented team against a pass-oriented one. So can someone please dial up a nasty squall to go along with the rain for Saturday night...please?