NFL Playoff Preview: Carolina Panthers Vs. Seattle Seahawks

Las Vegas may have placed the odds dramatically against the Carolina Panthers advancing any further this post-season, but the Seattle Seahawks are not be taking their divisional playoff match this Saturday lightly. Pete Carroll told the Charlotte Observer this week that Seattle was “lucky to get away with a win” in their Oct. 26 meeting in Charlotte, a narrow 13-9 victory made possible by a Wilson-Willson connection with 47 seconds remaining.

In fact, the past three match-ups between Carolina and Seattle have been nail-biters in the Seahawks’ favour, with a margin of victory smaller than a touchdown in each game. All three of those games were hosted by Carolina however, who haven’t visited the Emerald City since 2010 — long before the new age of Seahawk football, which has allowed visiting opponents only a pair of wins in the past three seasons.

Both teams enter the contest on a roll — Seattle on a six-game winning streak, with wins in nine of their last 10 games, and Carolina with five in a row after turning things around following a disastrous October/November. That said, none of those five victories should have posed a threat to any playoff-bound team: four teams below .500 and an Arizona Cardinals club forced to once again start third-string QB Ryan Lindley. Seattle, meanwhile, faced tougher opponents down the stretch and were able to post road victories in Philadelphia and San Francisco.

So can the Panthers manage to keep things close on Seattle’s home turf? Will Russell Wilson’s dual-threat prowess prove too much for Sean McDermott’s defence? Is the Seahawks’ league-best D — Bobby Wagner, in particular — strong enough to keep sizzling Panthers’ RB Jonathan Stewart in check? More importantly, will the great Seattle-Charlotte mayoral wager see Seattle mayor Ed Murray send a gift basket of grunge-rock vinyl to North Carolina?

Why Seattle can win:

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It’s no secret that Cam Newton is not having a season for the ages: career lows for yards passing and rushing, the most turnovers since his rookie campaign and an 82.1 quarterback rating (also a career-low). A perennial late-season bloomer, Newton and the Panthers once again turned things around in December. But after a four-touchdown statement game against New Orleans, Newton was hit with another setback when he sustained two fractures in his back when his truck rolled over in Charlotte.

But with three solid starts under his belt since the accident, Newton is getting back on track. Still, it was clear in last week’s game against Arizona that he is not 100%, grimacing after getting popped on more than one occasion. Seattle needs to get after him right from the kick-off and administer a few good licks from the start. CenturyLink Field is a hell of a venue for Newton’s first NFL post-season game on the road, and Seattle’s 12th Man won’t be going easy on him. When hurried, Newton’s passes often stray from the target, as we saw as recently as last week. Seattle’s pass rush needs to be on its game, and with DT Jordan Hill going down with a calf-pull, Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett will be in the spotlight. Seahawks defence will also have to keep on its toes and watch for the option, or another Panther-esque trick play.

On offense, Russell Wilson should keep doing what he does best: keep the defense guessing every single play. There’s no doubt this will be a brutal, hard-hitting game on both sides, so Wilson will need to be quick in the pocket. WR Paul Richardson would be an ideal target against the Panthers’ defense — if he can turn on the jets like he has the last four games, Wilson can air-mail the ball all the quicker.

The return of two-time Pro Bowl center Max Unger is monumental for the Seahawks offensive line. Unger, who was sidelined with an ankle injury in October, was just one of eventually four Seahawks to slot in at centre this season. His return will come as a relief for Russell Wilson, who carried a heavier responsibility of setting blocking assignments in his absence. The run game will also benefit- without Unger, the Seahawks averaged nearly 50 fewer rushing yards per game. Even his presence should bring comfort and reassurance to an already-shaky offensive line.

Why Carolina can win:

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If the Panthers can feed off of last week’s record-breaking defensive effort that saw them allow only 78 total yards, they’ll be getting off to a good start. Granted they weren't up against an offensive powerhouse, but any momentum heading into Seattle is in their favour. Luke Kuechly had a strong game with an interception and 10 tackles, and it will be largely up to him in keeping Marshawn Lynch’s beast mode under wraps. Lynch has been given fewer touches in the last three games, but he has been just as effective, notching at least one touchdown each game.

It may be a gamble but Carolina needs to apply pressure on Russell Wilson early in the game and get him scrambling. While his presence as a dual threat is a weapon to be wary, there is no room for conservative play against this offense. Seattle led the NFL in penalties for a second straight season, so if the Panthers can draw offensive flags and hem them back on a few fourth downs, it could provide the break they need.

Perhaps the best game plan on defense is to keep Wilson on the sidelines as much as possible (no I don’t mean to go for his knees!). Jonathan Stewart has been on fire leading up to the playoffs, so feed him the ball and work the ground game. Eat up the clock and keep the chains moving. The Panthers, obviously, want to play and win with their own game, but every second the Seahawks offense watches on the sidelines is a small victory. Not only were Jamaal Charles and DeMarco Murray the only two running backs with 100+ rushing yards against Seattle this year, they led their team to victory for two of the Seahawks’ four losses.

If the defense can keep the game close, then Newton needs to have the game of his life to complete an upset for the ages. I’m not just talking performance — he needs to step up and lead his team over the noise of the crowd. He needs to extend plays with his legs, work the clock intelligently and stay cool under pressure. Most importantly, he needs to play his game and not be (too) intimidated by the Legion of Boom — although a little intimidation is okay, smart even.

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1 Who Will Win?

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So will it be fourth time’s a charm for Carolina? Uh, probably not. With the crowd behind Seattle, this game is the Seahawks’ to lose. If they go into the game preparing like the normally do, aware of the potential mixed-bag that is Carolina’s offense, then Seattle shouldn't have a problem moving on. However, if the Panthers can manage to keep it close, who knows what the football gods have in store.

On paper the Seahawks should have this one in the bag. But this is NFL playoff time, and one very important element remains: the X factor. And Carolina has two in their favour. First, one cannot ignore the damned Super Bowl Winner’s Curse. Ten seasons have passed since the New England Patriots defended their title. Not only has a champion failed to return to the Super Bowl the following season since, none in the past nine years have managed to win a playoff game the next year. Second, the Panthers have entered the playoffs remarkably loose. If they can play with the same no-pressure, relaxed attitude as they did versus Arizona, it will be all the more dangerous for Seattle. Again, this is the Seahawks’ game to lose, and I’d be surprised if they do.



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