Divisional Round preview: Panthers-Seahawks

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The backstory


If any NFL team is close to a mirror image of the reigning Super Bowl champions, it's the surging Carolina Panthers.

After struggling to find their identities at midseason, both squads have entered January playing at the height of their powers. The Seahawks have beaten their past six opponents by an average of 22-7 whereas the Panthers' average margin of victory is 28-12 in their own five-game streak.

Like the Seahawks, the Panthers' offense features a mobile, sandlot-style quarterback, a dominant rushing attack and a collection of role players in the receiver corps. On the other side of the ball, Carolina boasts a pressuring defensive line, the NFL's fastest trio of linebackers, and a revamped, highly athletic secondary that closes passing windows.

Sean McDermott's Carolina defense has been among the five best in the league of late. Will that be enough to offset a Seattle defense as dominant as any since at least the 2000 Baltimore Ravens?

Under pressure


Cam Newton, QB, Panthers:

If not for Newton's scattershot accuracy and punt returner Brenton Bersin's head-scratching decision-making, the Panthers likely would have shut out the Cardinals in the Wild Card Round. Failing to get his lower body involved in his throwing motion -- as he is wont to do several times per season since entering the league -- Newton sailed more throws than he hit.

Newton played like a top-five NFL quarterback through mid-October, only to backslide as a passer for the next two months. Even when his mechanics are off, Newton can still be a bear to stop as a scrambler in key situations.

For the Panthers to upset the Legion of Boom, Newton will need a streamlined throwing motion, pinpoint accuracy and better touch than he has typically shown in his four-year career.

Matchup to watch:


Seahawks' front seven vs. Panthers' revived ground attack:

Russell Wilson and Marshawn Lynch will rightfully hog the spotlight leading up to Saturday night's game, but Newton and Jonathan Stewart are clicking on all cylinders behind a much-improved offensive line.

Stewart is the NFL's leading rusher over the past six weeks, averaging over 100 yards per game. Since Week 13, the tandem of Newton and Stewart is averaging 148 yards on the ground versus 132 for Wilson and Lynch.

This is a strength-on-strength matchup, as Seattle's defense has limited opposing running backs to 298 yards and one touchdown on 105 carries (2.84 yards per carry) since All-Pro middle linebacker Bobby Wagner returned from a turf toe injury in Week 12.

Mind-blowing stats:


Including the playoffs, Wilson has started 53 games since entering the league in 2012. His team has held a lead in every single one of them. ... The Seahawks have led the NFL in overall team efficiency for three consecutive years, per Pro Football Outsiders. ... Five Thirty Eight's metrics give the 2014 Seahawks the fifth-highest mark any team has carried into the postseason since the 1970 merger. ... They are the first team since the 1969-71 Minnesota Vikings to lead the NFL in fewest points allowed for three consecutive seasons. ... They are also the first team since the 1976 "Steel Curtain" Steelers to win the final six games of the regular season while allowing fewer than 40 total points.

With three more quarterback hurries against the Cardinals, Charles Johnson has now bypassed J.J. Watt for most (56) by any defensive end this season. ... In the last five weeks of the season, Chris Harris of the Broncos was the only cornerback with a higher coverage grade than Panthers rookie Bene' Benwikere, per Pro Football Focus. ... Newton's incompletion rate on off-target throws over the three years has been fairly steady at 19 percent (2012), 17 percent (2013) and 20 percent (2014). ... He has been sacked the same number of times since Week 11 (9.0) as in Week 10 alone. ... Since 2011, only Tom Brady and Wilson have more wins in December and January.

Prediction:


These teams have met once a year since Wilson joined Newton in the NFL. The Panthers have held a fourth-quarter lead in the last two matchups and a third-quarter lead in the first -- only to lose all three. Along with the strengths and weaknesses of their current rosters, those final scores of 16-12, 12-7 and 13-9 suggest a smash-mouth, low-scoring affair at CenturyLink Field.

Ron Rivera's team is materially different than the one that opened the season 3-8-1 through the end of November. If Newton is on his game, they can hang with the Super Bowl champs on a neutral field. Spotted home-field advantage, a quarterback edge and a historically great defense, though, Pete Carroll's squad has to be viewed as the heavy favorite.

Seattle Seahawks 17, Carolina Panthers 13


The latest Around The NFL Podcast previews every Divisional Round game and breaks down the Manning-Luck matchup. Find more Around The NFL content on NFL NOW.

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