By Shawn S. Lealos
The Carolina Panthers are just one game away from the Super Bowl, and their last obstacle is the Arizona Cardinals. After losing starting wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin before the season started with a torn ACL, the Panthers went through the entire season almost unscathed. However, heading down the stretch, they lost their starting running back and wide receiver, but still won enough games to end up as the first seed in the playoffs. Now, with Arizona coming up this week, the Panthers have lost two valuable starters on the defense.
The first was lost at the end of the regular season with cornerback Charles Tillman. While that was a tough loss, they still have one of the best corners in the NFL in Josh Norman and picked up former standout Cortland Finnegan, who came out retirement to join the Panthers. Even without Tillman, it was enough to beat the Seattle Seahawks last weekend, and Finnegan proved he is far from finished with an interception of Russell Wilson in that game. The combination of Carson Palmer and his three top receivers, Larry Fitzgerald, John Brown and Michael Floyd, might expose that depleted secondary, though.
Another reason the Panthers have to fear this weekend’s game is the loss of defensive end Jared Allen, who was ruled out by coach Ron Rivera for the game. Allen has a fractured foot that he suffered in the Seattle matchup. Since the defensive pass rush helps every secondary, losing a key member of that unit might expose the secondary even more. Allen is not happy about it and said that he is ready to play, but Rivera said he wants to protect Allen from himself and would rather have him stronger if they make it to the Super Bowl. Rivera has faith in his defense and Kony Ealy will start in place of Allen. Ealy has five sacks this season.
Ted Ginn Jr., who missed the final game of the regular season, returned last week but didn’t catch a pass in the game. If Palmer and Arizona start off hot, the Panthers will need Ginn to step things up this week alongside tight end Greg Olsen. Ginn was not listed on this week’s injury report at all. Running back Jonathan Stewart also returned from injury for the playoffs and he was on fire, running for 106 yards and two touchdowns in the game. He is listed as probable, but will have a large role again this week. Running back Fozzy Whitaker, who was out last week, is back this week and is listed as probable.
Dwan Edwards, DT (foot)
Charles Johnson, DE (non-injury)
Jonathan Stewart, RB (ankle)
Fozzy Whitaker, RB (ankle)
Jared Allen, DE (foot)
Shawn S. Lealos is a freelance writer who graduated from the University of Oklahoma in 2000 with a Bachelor’s Degree in Journalism. He writes for a variety of national publications and has over 15 years of sports journalism experience. Follow Shawn on Twitter @sslealos.