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Panthers lean on defense, Cam in victory over Cards

The Carolina Panthers aren't done yet after a 30-20 victory over the Arizona Cardinals. Here's what we learned:

  1. The Panthers won this game before halftime, just like in last season's NFC Championship. The beleaguered Panthers defense was the key, led by nose tackle Star Lotulelei's three sacks and three tackles for loss. They pressured and confused Carson Palmer consistently, sacking him eight times. They held the Cardinals to three first downs and a lost fumble on Arizona's first five drives. By then, it was 24-0.
  1. The stats (14 for 27, 212 yards passing) don't show it, but Cam Newton delivered an MVP performance. Carolina featured Newton as a runner early and the return of Jonathan Stewart (117 yards from scrimmage, two TDs) had Carolina's multifaceted running game humming again. Cam completed some difficult dimes to set the tone, including some throws on third-and-long.
  1. The Cardinals have been one of the least effective teams throwing deep in football, and didn't have a completion over 20 yards all afternoon. On a day where the Panthers loaded up to stop David Johnson (10 carries for 24 yards), Palmer was unable to make them pay. At 3-4-1, Arizona is struggling to transition to a defense-led squad.
  1. The Panthers benched Kony Ealy for Wes Horton to start the game, showing that the team wouldn't stand pat with their struggling defense coming out of a bye. They also got more creative with their blitzes, sending a lot of pressure from their linebackers and secondary. The Cardinals haven't handled blitzes well all season.
  1. Kelvin Benjamin beat Patrick Peterson for a physical 50-yard catch during Carolina's third touchdown drive. The Panthers don't need Benjamin (two catches for 73 yards) and Devin Funchess (three for 38) to light it up, just to deliver difficult grabs in traffic occasionally. They did it on Sunday.
  1. The Cardinals' final numbers are misleading; they only had 106 yards of offense midway through the third quarter. With that said, Carolina has to be careful about sitting on big leads. It was a problem for the Panthers last season and there was no need for this one to stay competitive midway through the fourth quarter until Carolina stopped a two-point try.
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