NFC championship game features two of NFL's best cornerbacks
TEMPE, ARIZ. >> Cornerbacks might have the toughest job in the NFL.
They are expected to shadow a receiver, who knows where he's going while the defender doesn't, and the rules are stacked against them.
Few truly excel at the job. This season, Arizona's Patrick Peterson and Carolina's Josh Norman might have been the best, and they will be plying their trade in the biggest game of their careers in Sunday's NFC championship game.
Both made the AP's All-Pro team, and they are "very" similar," Cardinals coach Bruce Arians said.
"They're different styles of defenses," he said, "but they're long, they're fast, they're athletic and they're tough."
Norman has the edge in statistics, but Peterson's are misleading. He's shut down some of the best receivers in the league in one-on-one coverage, and quarterbacks simply stopped throwing in his direction.
Peterson has allowed two touchdowns this season — one on broken coverage at Chicago and the other, famously, on Aaron Rodgers' Hail Mary to Jeff Janis at the end of regulation in Saturday's overtime victory over Green Bay.
Peterson and Carolina's Cam Newton go back to their SEC days, when Peterson played at LSU and Newton at Auburn.
"You ask yourself what can't he do," Newton said. "He's fast, he's physical and when the ball is in the air, he's not thinking to bat it down, he's thinking that's his ball, and you just have to have respect for a guy like that."
Arizona quarterback Carson Palmer was equally complimentary of Norman.
"He's got that build that I think everybody's looking for," Palmer said, "really long, gets a good extension with his arms, plays with his hands really, really well. He's got top-end speed. He doesn't go for a deflection; he goes for the football and gets a deflection out of it, or an interception. He comes up in the run game and makes plays. If anybody reminds you of Richard Sherman, I think it's him."
Norman had 55 tackles, three forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries and four interceptions. All four came in the first four games of the season, and he returned two of them for touchdowns.
"Josh Norman is a premier cornerback," the Cardinals' Larry Fitzgerald said. "There's a reason he's going to be the highest-paid free agent come this offseason. Whatever team he goes to, I hope it's in the AFC, so we don't have to deal with him. ... You watch him on tape, there's nothing that you say, oh he struggles with this or he's deficient at this. There's nothing that shows you that."
Peterson, who had a 100-yard interception return negated by a penalty last weekend, has made the Pro Bowl each of his five NFL seasons. But he had a subpar 2014, when he was a bit overweight and was diagnosed with diabetes. This year, he's noticeably slimmer and faster.
"Last year definitely wasn't my best year, and this year it's just getting back to Patrick Peterson, for the most part," he said. "I've been All-Pro before. I've been recognized as one of the best cornerbacks before, been to five Pro Bowls, so it's not a shock or surprise that I'm getting my recognition back."
Just what their exact roles will be on Sunday is something of a mystery.
Peterson usually goes against the opponent's best receiver. That would be tight end Greg Olsen, and that seems an unlikely matchup, given Arizona's 3-4 defensive scheme and the way the Cardinals have defended tight ends all season.
And don't expect Norman to go against Fitzgerald. Norman rarely defends a player who lines up in the slot, where Fitzgerald usually is.
"We're going to do things according to situational football and we'll see how it plays out," Carolina coach Ron Rivera said.
But there will be plenty of work for Norman. The Arizona offense features a trio of talented receivers and Arians loves to have his team throw long.
"I'm licking my chops," Norman said. "I have my ears pinned back and ready to run. I'm anticipating it. I know he is a great quarterback and that is why I am so amped about it — I get to play formidable competition and what he brings to the table is great receivers that he has in his arsenal. I can't be happier for this matchup because I won't be just standing around anymore."