(Reuters) - Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton, who likes to strike a Superman pose after his gridiron feats, will test his powers against the visiting Arizona Cardinals with a Super Bowl berth on the line on Sunday.
The mountain-sized Newton, a dual threat with a bazooka arm and bruising running skills, led Carolina to an NFL-best 15-1 mark in the regular season and is considered the favorite for league MVP honors.
“He is a monster at the quarterback position,” Arizona’s Pro Bowl cornerback Patrick Peterson said ahead of their NFC title game. “Being 6-6, who can run ... being the physical specimen that he is, brings some special challenges.
“And he’s truly grown as a passer and a leader.”
Arizona has their own top quarterback in veteran Carson Palmer in a match-up of well-balanced powerhouses that will send the winner to Super Bowl 50 against the survivor of the AFC title tilt between the New England Patriots and Denver Broncos.
The ebullient Newton, who often shows off his dance moves in the end zone after touchdowns, sent the Panthers to the top of the league’s scoring charts with the Cardinals and Palmer right behind in averaging over 30 points.
Both teams also feature fierce defenses, ranking in the top six in fewest yards allowed and top eight in points allowed.
Carolina uses a strong running game to open up the field for Newton’s play action passes.
Running back Jonathan Stewart showed the Panthers’ prowess in their playoff win against Seattle when he got them off to a dazzling start with a 59-yard burst up the middle followed by a four-yard touchdown run.
Newton, who this season became the first NFL player to throw for 340 yards and rush for 100 in a game, executes running plays designed for him as well as improvised escapes when pass protection breaks down.
In contrast, Palmer, like Newton a former number one overall draft pick and Heisman Trophy winner, is a pocket passer with limited mobility who does his damage strictly through the air for Arizona (13-3), who had the NFL’s second-best record.
Palmer has a top-flight crew of receivers in Larry Fitzgerald, Michael Floyd and John Brown going against a vulnerable Carolina secondary weakened by injury beyond Pro Bowl cornerback Josh Norman.
But Arizona could have trouble running the ball against a Carolina defense boasting a brilliant one-two linebacking punch in Pro Bowlers Luke Kuechly and Tom Davis.
The Cardinals have former longtime offensive coordinator Bruce Arians as head coach, while Carolina is coached by Ron Rivera, who was a young linebacker on the Bears’ vaunted defense that carried them to the 1985 championship.
Both coaches favor aggressive tactics. “No risk it, no biscuit,” is one of Arians’ favorite sayings.
The slightly-favored Panthers were 8-0 at home this season, but the undaunted Cardinals were 7-1 on the road and eager to avenge last year’s playoff loss to Carolina when Palmer was sidelined.
Unlike the AFC showdown between teams full of championship experience, the NFC clash will advance a team gunning for their first Super Bowl triumph.
Both the Panthers (in 2003) and Cardinals (2008) have been there once before and lost narrow decisions.
“I don’t get nervous,” said 26-year-old Newton. “I’ve been playing football for too long for me to get nervous. I used to dream of being in this type of position.”
Reporting by Larry Fine in New York; Editing by Steve Keating.