For two teams that reside in different divisions, clear across the country from one another, the Seattle Seahawks (11-6) and the Carolina Panthers (15-1) have grown very familiar with one another. Sunday’s NFC Divisional Playoff game between these two cross-divisional rivals in Charlotte will mark their second meeting of the season and their fifth meeting in just four years.
In Week 6, the Panthers defeated the Seahawks 27-23 on the road in come-from-behind fashion. It would serve as Carolina’s first signature win of the season and play a significant role in fueling the Panthers to a 15-1 regular season record. Carolina’s victory also snapped a five-game losing streak to the Seahawks dating back to 2010. More importantly, the Panthers were able to avenge a 31-17 loss to the Seahawks in last year’s divisional playoff matchup.
Sunday’s rematch should be another epic showdown in what has already proven to be a hotly contested series in recent years. A well-rested Panthers team has no intention of letting their storybook season come to an end. While the perennial playoff powerhouse Seahawks are just fortunate to be here following last week’s stunning close call against Minnesota in their wild-card game. It is loser-go-home football at this point for two of the hottest teams in the NFL with a trip to the NFC Championship Game on the line.
NFC Divisional Round: Seattle at Carolina
Kickoff: 1:05 p.m. ET (Sunday)
Spread: Carolina -2.5
Three Things to Watch
1. The Panthers’ Pass Rush vs. The Seahawks’ Offensive Line
Pass protection has been a glaring weakness for the Seahawk offense all season. It was especially evident in Week 6 when a lackluster Seattle offensive line gave up four sacks to the Panthers. For the entire regular season, the Seahawks allowed 46 sacks. The sixth most in the NFL and an alarmingly high number for an offense with an athletically gifted and mobile quarterback under center.
You can expect a healthy Carolina pass rush to once again dial up the pressure on Sunday in an attempt to exploit a sub-par Seahawks’ offensive front. Only five other teams in the NFL had more sacks than a Panthers’ pass rush that yielded 44 during the regular season. Panthers’ defensive tackle Kawann Short is a specific player of note to keep an eye on. Short led the Panthers with 11 sacks on the season, two of which came against the Seahawks back in Week 6.
2. The Seahawks’ Defense: Remarkable on the Road
Thanks in large part to Seattle’s “12th Man” (aka the Seahawks’ rabid fan base), no other team in the NFL has enjoyed more success on their home field in recent years than the Seahawks. That being said, the road has been especially kind to the Seahawks in 2015, especially on defense. Since Week 5, Seattle has allowed one lone touchdown in six road games. Just one!
Seattle hopes to carry that same good fortune into Bank of America Stadium on Sunday. Standing in the Seahawks’ way will be a Carolina offense that led the NFL in scoring during the regular season (31.2 ppg). It seems crazy to even fathom that the Seahawks’ defense could keep the Panthers’ high-powered offense out of the end zone. However, the same thing was said about the Seattle defense before the Seahawks visited Arizona in the final game of the regular season.
The Cardinals also led the NFL in scoring prior to hosting the Seahawks. Arizona ended that game with just six points via two field goals. Seattle’s track record on the road speaks for itself, but it will still be a very tall order to prevent Carolina from finding paydirt on Sunday.
3. Russell Wilson vs. Cam Newton
Sunday’s divisional game will feature two of the hottest signal-callers in the NFL. Wilson is 7-1 over the last games, during which he has averaged 283 total yards per contest, while accounting for 26 touchdowns and just two interceptions. Wilson will have his work cut out for him against the Panthers’ aforementioned pass rush and a Carolina secondary that features lockdown cornerback Josh Norman. Ball-hawking safety Kurt Coleman also is expected to return from injury this week to further complicate matters for Wilson.
Newton has also led his team to a 7-1 record in his last eight games. He has averaged 289 total yards per game, also with 26 touchdowns to his credit and just one interception during that span. Newton should be well rested following the bye, and the extra week to prepare should have him at the top of his game. Regardless, Newton will still have a tough task on Sunday against a Seahawks defense that once again ranked No. 1 in the NFL in points allowed this season. It will be entertaining to see which of these elite quarterbacks can overcome the odds and come out on top against top-shelf competition.
It’s not difficult to make a case for either one of these teams to move on to the NFC Championship Game. Seattle has a proven playoff pedigree, an amazing defense that has only given up one touchdown in its last six road games, an elite quarterback, and a strong desire to avenge a Week 6 loss to the Panthers. The Seahawks also may get Marshawn Lynch back this week, which would bolster their chances even further.
As for the Panthers, they will be fresher and healthier following last week’s bye, they also have an elite quarterback, a stellar defense, and have no desire to see an amazing season come to an end at the hands of the Seahawks for the second year in a row. Carolina also will get starting running back Jonathan Stewart back from injury, along with deep-threat wide receiver Ted Ginn.
There is no question that this will be a hard-fought game that could go either way. That being said, it’s hard to bet against a Carolina team that has not lost a game at Bank of America Stadium since Week 11 of the 2014 season. It’s also fair to assume that Seattle will be a little worse for the wear heading into this matchup after last week’s tooth-and-nail struggle against Minnesota in sub-zero weather.
Prediction: Panthers 21, Seahawks 20
— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.