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Divisional Round preview: Seahawks-Panthers

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The backstory


This is a matchup worthy of the Super Bowl. Along with Arizona, Carolina and Seattle are two of the three best teams in the league. And they are mirror images with underrated passing attacks, complex running games, and defenses with depth at every position. The Panthers and Seahawks matchup has quietly developed into one of the NFL's best rivalries since Russell Wilson was drafted. This will be the sixth meeting in four years and the second year in a row they meet in the playoffs. While the Panthers didn't win one of those games until their Week 6 comeback in Seattle, almost every game has been close. Four of the five games were decided by less than five points. This matchup is recipe for low scores and fourth-quarter drama. If you are looking for a rivalry to replace Manning vs. Brady, this is the best candidate.

Carolina's victory in Seattle should give the Panthers confidence, even if both teams are demonstrably different than they were then. The Panthers have lost two of their top three cornerbacks to injury -- Bene' Benwikere and Charles Tillman. The Seahawks' two leading receivers that day, Jimmy Graham (140 yards!) and Ricardo Lockette, are both out for the season. The status of Marshawn Lynch is a mystery.

The Seahawks offense, despite the different cast of characters, is more dynamic throwing the ball than any time during Wilson's four-year run with dominant teams. Tyler Lockett has developed faster than anyone expected as a receiver. He beat Panthers safeties, including Roman Harper, deep during the team's Week 6 game. Wilson missed the throw but we expect plenty of vertical shots in this game. The Panthers offense also improved down the stretch and wound up leading the league in scoring. The offensive line is stronger overall than Seattle's.

Under pressure


Seattle's defense is more talented overall. Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett are both capable of completely taking over a game, and form the most underrated pass rush duo of this decade. They have both been at their best this season. Avril wreaked havoc in the first matchup this year, giving Panthers tackle Mike Remmers all kinds of problems. Bennett's quickness destroyed the Vikings offense last week. He's one of the most versatile and aggressive defensive lineman in football.

Avril and Bennett's ability puts Panthers tackles Remmers and Michael Oher in the spotlight, yet we believe the Seahawks defense is actually the group under pressure. That's how hard it is to prepare for the Panthers running game. Watching Carolina on GamePass all week, I was blown away all over again about the complexity and execution of the Panthers running game. This team has been together so long that they have grown an incredible amount of "base" running plays. They can execute a huge variety of runs that look similar, yet play out very differently. They make you prepare for a lot with Stewart, fullback Mike Tolbert, tight end Greg Olsen and various receivers all lining up in the backfield. They caught Seattle being too aggressive in the first matchup, hitting them with misdirection, reverses, or sweeps plays to their wide receiver. They were able to keep running heavily in the fourth quarter in Week 6 despite trailing, and it paid off.

Cam Newton is the key to it all. He is terrific at deciding whether to keep the ball or let Stewart take it at the "mesh" point. For all the talk of the read option as a "fad," the Seahawks and Panthers both gained over 30 rushing yards-per-game out of the formation this year.

Seattle presents a similar challenge on offense because of Wilson's running ability but their overall running game has not been unable to find consistency since Thomas Rawls was injured. Perhaps Marshawn Lynch will return to the lineup good as new, but the Panthers running game is more trustworthy.

Matchup to watch


Greg Olsen vs. Seahawks secondary

This isn't all about Kam Chancellor. While Chancellor and the rest of the Seahawks defense has struggled against top tier tight ends, Earl Thomas, Richard Sherman and Bobby Wagner will all play a big role in trying to limit Carolina's most dangerous receiver. Olsen made most of his big plays last time out against Seattle's linebackers, and then took advantage on some confusion in the secondary between Thomas and Sherman. There is no safety in the league quite like Thomas, and he is playing at an extremely high level again. No one can read opposing offenses and make up ground more than Thomas. He makes a wow-worthy play every week lately. Don't be surprised if this matchup, especially Thomas, goes a long way toward deciding the outcome Sunday.

Mindblowing stats


Don't count the Seahawks out until the final whistle sounds, even against this Panthers defense. They are 5-2 under Pete Carroll in playoff games in which they have trailed by 9+ points. The rest of the NFL is 6-41 over that span in similar situations. ... This game features the No. 1 scoring offense (Carolina) against Seattle's top-scoring defense. The top defense has won 7 of the last 10 of those meetings. ... Seattle's defense peaked late in the year. They have allowed fewer than 10 points in four of its last six games. In its last six road games, they have given up one offensive touchdown! ... The 2003 Patriots were the last team to finish the regular season with the best record and win the Super Bowl, which shows how tough the Panthers' task will be. ... Both Josh Norman and Richard Sherman allowed fewer than half of the passes sent their way to be completed this season. Norman was targeted 32 more times, but gave up fewer touchdowns (3) than Sherman, who gave up four.

Prediction


The top team in the NFL got the toughest draw in the Divisional Round. But every champion must overcome obstacles to reach the promised land, and Seattle has been the NFC bully for the last few years. This is Carolina's time. This matchup could not be more evenly matched and fascinating, but I'll give the edge to the home team with the MVP on its team. Luke Kuechly is the rare linebacker that can limit Wilson's ability to run in the open field. Look for a memorable tackle by Kuechly in the red zone on fourth down to clinch a hard-fought victory for Carolina.

Panthers 24, Seahawks 20

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