Seattle @ Carolina Sunday 1:05pm
In a typical playoff year a 1 seed coming off of a bye playing a 6 seed in the second round would be a mismatch. Not this year. Seattle is a 6 seed in name only. Despite finishing the year 5 games behind 15-1 Carolina, Seattle has the 4th best point differential in the NFL, only 36 points behind the Panthers. They’re without question one of the top 3 teams in their conference if not top 2 depending on how you feel about the Cardinals. A game worthy of the NFC Championship, Panthers/Seahawks is by far the best game on paper in the divisional round. However it is a game that wouldn’t be happening if Blair Walsh would’ve made a chip shot field goal for Minnesota last week. Pete Carroll should be thanking his lucky stars his team lives to fight another day.
The Panthers have had a dream season, starting the year winning 14 straight games. But they have to be wondering what all their hard work in the regular season was for if it ends up with them having to play the two time defending NFC Champs in their first playoff game, while Arizona gets to play a scuffling Green Bay team. I’m certainly not the first one to say it, but the 1 seed in each conference should get to choose who they play in the divisional round. But alas this is the matchup they get if they want to get back to NFC title game for the first time since 2005 when they lost to Seattle.
In fact these two teams have an interesting recent history. They played in last year’s divisional round as well, with the 7-8-1 Panthers putting up a hell of a fight before Seattle sealed the win with a late Kam Chancellor pick-six. These teams have played every year in the regular season for the past 4 years and every game was decided by 5 points or less. Seattle won each of the first 3 games before Carolina beat Seattle in Seattle on a late TD pass to Greg Olsen. What do these recent games tell us about what will happen on Sunday?
Seattle and Carolina are in a way analogs of each other. Both feature play making defenses full of stars and mobile QBs that can do it all. For this reason I find it hard to believe that either team will run away with a win. It’s going to be tight and it’s probably going to come down to the last few minutes of the game. For Carolina the question for them is can any of their receiving threats complement Greg Olsen? In their game this year besides Olsen’s 131 yards, no Carolina target had more than 24 yards receiving. Olsen will probably still get his; Kam Chancellor struggles with tight ends at times, but Ted Ginn or Philly Brown need to step up and make some plays on the Legion of Boom. Considering Seattle is boasting the number one defense in the league for 4th straight year, this will be a tall task.
For Seattle, the question is can Russell Wilson and Doug Baldwin’s recent run of great play translate against a very good Carolina defense? Josh Norman has emerged as a star at corner and I’m sure he relishes the opportunity to stop Doug Baldwin. In recent weeks the only teams that have slowed down Seattle are the St. Louis/LA Rams and the Vikings last week. While weather was an extenuating circumstance last week, both teams were able to whip the Seattle offensive line, and keep Wilson running for his life. Wilson is one of the best in the league of thriving when the pocket collapses, but even he needs a bit of time to at least identify where is escape lanes are. This challenge will fall to Thomas Davis, Luke Kuechly, Star Lotulelei and the rest of the talented Carolina front 7. Containing Wilson is the key to containing Seattle.
Each team is expecting their starting running back to return after missing time due to injury. When Jonathan Stewart or Marshawn Lynch is running well it should give both team the balance it needs to fend off the pass rush. For Stewart, he’s been an integral part of Carolina’s success this year, he should fit back fairly seamlessly barring any setbacks due to his injury. For Beast Mode it’s not quite that simple. He’s only played in parts of 7 games this season, and Seattle only won 3 of them. The offensive explosion that led Seattle to their current position coincided almost directly with Lynch going out. You have to wonder what was it about Lynch that was holding the offense back, or is it a complete coincidence? Lynch could be on the decline and he has a lot to prove this weekend as this could be the last game he ever plays in a Seahawks uniform.
The biggest keys of this game, like every game, are the quarterbacks. Wilson and Newton are the leaders of the new school of quarterbacks; young guys who are just as good on the move as they are in the pocket. Wilson has been fantastic this year especially in the back half of the season so I don’t want to take anything away from him. But the story of this game and of this season has been Cam Newton. Sure his stats are gaudy, but let’s look beyond his 4500 total yards and 45(!) total touchdowns this season. What we’ve seen from Cam this season is the fantastic moment when the mental side of the game matches someone’s seemingly unlimited physical abilities. For Cam this year it looked like he was seeing the game in slow motion; seeing passing windows the average QB wouldn’t even see, let alone throw into, picking up yardage on the ground whenever he wants to and perhaps most importantly, somehow turning Ted Ginn Jr into a viable NFL receiver. When analyzing this game the constant fear from a Carolina perspective is that Carolina asks too much of Cam Newton, that if you shut him down they don’t have a chance. And while yes, the Panthers put an enormous burden on his shoulders, there’s not a player in the league better equipped to handle it than Cam. Seattle is a great team that has had a great run, but it’s the year of Cam Newton and I’m not going to be the one that bets against him.
Carolina wins a close one 32-26 to advance to the NFC Championship