Tonight the reigning champion Seattle Seahawks will begin their quest back to the Super Bowl while the Carolina Panthers will try to pull off what in a lot of people’s minds would be the ultimate upset.
The Panthers come off a 27-16 victory over the Arizona Cardinals last Saturday in the opening round of this year’s playoffs. The number one seed Seahawks enjoyed a bye allowing for injured players like center Max Unger and wide receiver Jermaine Kearse among others to get healthy.
The Seahawks come into this game as a favorite after ending the season 12-4 including their final six. The Panthers won the NFC South despite a losing record of 7-8-1.
Even after the Panthers roller coaster season they too came into the postseason with momentum on their side winning their last four games of the regular season. Looking at their records may convince you that Seattle should be the heavy favorites but don’t let those numbers fool you.
These two teams mimic each other very closely or as Seahawks defensive end Michael Bennett said earlier this week, the Panthers are the Seahawks really attractive cousin. Both teams struggled earlier in the season as Seattle started 3-3 and Carolina lost six straight during mid season but both clicked at the right time and were two of the hottest teams coming into the post season.
The matchup features two of the most mobile quarterbacks in the league in Russell Wilson and Cam Newton as well as two of the toughest, most hard hitting defenses that feature two of the best linebackers in football in Luke Kuechly and Bobby Wagner. They each rely heavily on their run game riding the backs of Marshawn Lynch for Seattle and Jonathan Stewart for Carolina.
Stewart was the NFL’s leading rusher down the stretch rushing for over 100 yards per game the last six weeks but he’ll have a tough go facing the NFL’s leading rush defense.
While Carolina’s defense is coming off a strong performance against Arizona last week, there’s no question that through the final stretch of the season no defense played better than Seattle’s. In their last six outings they allowed 39 points total, that’s an average of 6.5 points per game.
Their defense became the first team since the 1969-71 Minnesota Vikings to lead the NFL in fewest points allowed for three consecutive seasons. There’s no doubt if Seattle is to return to the Super Bowl for the second year in a row (a feat that hasn’t been done since the New England Patriots did it in 2003/2004) it will be on the back of their defense.
They will have to contain Newton today and not allow him to utilize his legs forcing him to throw from the pocket. Accuracy is something Newton struggles with as he completed only 58.5 percent of his passes this season, 29th in the NFL. If Newton cannot hit his targets you can bet the legion of boom will make him pay.
Additionally, if Carolina’s offensive line can’t protect Newton, Pro Bowler Bobby Wagner and Seattle’s front seven will have a field day and Newton will be spending a lot of time on the ground. He’s played admirably this year fighting through injuries and making a miraculous comeback after his car accident in December but this is not the team that will grant you any sort of sympathy.
Carolina’s defense will also have to do the same to Wilson and not allow him to break away for those first down runs he’s so notorious for. Pro Bowler Kuechly and company will need to contain Lynch while showing Wilson some turf of his own. They will also need to keep Seattle’s offense off the field. While Wilson and company don’t always get off to the fastest starts, they have a way of wearing down an opposing teams defense over the course of a game.
Time of possession will play a big role in addition to creating and capitalizing off turnovers. You can be sure the 12th man will be roaring and creating as hostile an environment as they can muster. Kickoff at CenturyLink Field is tonight at 8:15 p.m. EST.