Line: Panthers -5.5

The 11-5 Arizona Cardinals travel to North Carolina to take on the 7-9 Panthers in the first round of the NFC playoffs with both teams going in different directions. The Panthers are only the second team to reach the post season with a losing record but do so playing great football. They enter the playoffs on a 4 game winning streak where they have outscored their opponents 111-43. The Cardinals have lost 2 of their last 4 games and have actually been outscored 75-52. Starting quarterback Carson Palmer is out for the year and his replacement Drew Stanton has missed the last 2 games with a strained knee and his status for this game is uncertain.

The Panthers 4 game win streak to get into the playoffs was spearheaded by their defense. They have limited opposing offenses to an average of 10 points per game, forced 9 turnovers, and registered 14 sacks. Opposing quarterbacks have been limited to averaging 5.6 yards per passing attempt and a passer rating of 64 percent. This could pose major problems for the Cardinals who may be forced to start 3rd string quarterback Ryan Lindley if Stanton can’t go. The Panthers received a big scare before week 15 when Cam Newton injured his back in a serious car accident. Those fears have been put to rest as he returned to lead his team to victories in weeks 16 and 17 and showed he still has his mobility and athleticism by rushing for an average of 57 yards and scoring a rushing touchdown in each game.

The Cardinals started the year off 9-1 and looked like a legitimate Super Bowl contender before Carson Palmer was lost for the year in week 10. Since then, they are 4-6 and their offense has only averaged 12 points per game. Other key injuries have also hurt the Cardinals as star wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald missed a few weeks with a knee injury and hasn’t been the same since returning and starting running back Andre Ellington was lost for the year in week 13. If Stanton can’t play, the Cardinals will have to rely on Lindley who took over for Stanton in week 15 and is 0-2 with twice as many interceptions (4) as touchdowns (2). Their defense has been good all year ranking 5th in points per game allowed at 18.7 but have given up a combined 55 points in the last 2 games.

Just four weeks ago, the Panthers were 3-8 and the franchise seemed in disarray, while the Cardinals were 9 and 3 and looked like one of the best teams in the N.F.L. Now, the Panthers have home field advantage are 5.5 point favorites against the Cardinals in this matchup. The Panthers are fully healthy and have been playing well on both sides of the football as evidenced by their 34-3 beat down of the Falcons last week in Atlanta which was a must win game for both teams. The Cardinals have injuries at several key positions and have struggled on both sides of the football in recent weeks.

Pick: Panthers -5.5

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