(Reuters) - If the Carolina Panthers and Arizona Cardinals are to begin a new era of NFC reign they will have to unseat the conference juggernauts of recent years during the NFL’s divisional playoffs this weekend.
The Panthers (15-1) and Cardinals (13-3) have each enjoyed franchise-best campaigns that have earned them the top seeds in the NFC, but their opponents command respect as annual contenders.
The Seattle Seahawks (10-6) visit Carolina on Sunday as the two-time defending NFC champions, with one unforgettable goal-line interception keeping them from consecutive Super Bowl wins last February.
The Green Bay Packers (10-6) suffered an epic collapse in last season’s NFC championship but have remained a perennial threat during an Aaron Rodgers-led era that produced a Super Bowl triumph in the 2010 season.
For both the Panthers and Cardinals, two franchises that have yet to win a Super Bowl, the matchups provide the perfect opportunity to vanquish the old guard.
“Fate gives you these chances to prove yourself worthy,” Panthers Pro Bowl cornerback Josh Norman told reporters. “Why would you want anything in life that’s easy? Challenge yourself to be the best, and if you can be the best, beat the best.”
Carolina will be led by quarterback Cam Newton, who has been the best during a banner season that is expected to earn him the league’s Most Valuable Player award.
Newton tossed for 35 touchdowns and ran for 10 more as the Panthers flirted with regular season perfection, but in the Seahawks he will face one of the NFL’s most feared defenses.
Newton was able to solve Seattle in a 27-23 win last October but the playoffs are a different challenge.
The Seahawks showed their mettle once again last week when they survived a 10-9 wild-card battle in frigid Minnesota temperatures.
Seattle QB Russell Wilson is the dual threat counterpart to Newton and owns a 7-2 career playoff record.
Seahawks lead running back Marshawn Lynch is still a question mark for the game as he has not played since mid-November because of abdomen surgery.
In Arizona on Saturday, the Cardinals vow not to be complacent despite thrashing the Packers in the penultimate game of their regular season.
Green Bay was in the midst of an offensive slump at the time but they appear to have turned the corner after a flashy 35-18 wild-card victory over the Washington Redskins last week.
“You look at them since we played them, they look like a completely different team,” said Arizona cornerback Jerraud Powers. “We know Aaron (quarterback Rodgers) is probably licking his chops wanting to play us again.”
Rodgers is battle tested on this stage while Cardinals veteran quarterback Carson Palmer has surprisingly never won a playoff game during his 12 seasons in the NFL.
The Cardinals, much like the Panthers, are the favored home team yet they still find themselves with the most to prove.
Reporting by Jahmal Corner in Los Angeles; Editing by Frank Pingue and Larry Fine