NFC Wild Card contenders meet in Charlotte
The stakes will be extremely high on Sunday as the Seattle Seahawks (5-5) head down to Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte to take on the Carolina Panthers (6-4). Both teams are in a fierce battle for the two NFC Wild Card berths along with the Minnesota Vikings.
Last Thursday night, the Seahawks traded body blows early on against Green Bay. Trailing 14-3, Seattle stayed patient with the run game and rallied to win 27-24. Russell Wilson completed 21-of-31 passes for 225 yards and threw two touchdown passes. Chris Carson led a balanced rushing attack for Seattle with 83 yards on 17 carries and one touchdown. The ability to close out the game in the fourth quarter sent a strong message to the rest of the NFL, as the Seahawks got the ball back with just over four minutes left and grinded out a couple key first downs to win it.
Carolina is coming off a gut-wrenching 20-19 loss to the Detroit Lions at Ford Field in Detroit on Sunday. The Panthers made more than their share of mistakes on both sides of the ball and paid the ultimate price with a loss to a team that they should have beaten. Cam Newton threw for 357 yards and three touchdowns, but with the lack of a consistent running game, it wasn’t enough for Carolina to get the job done. There also was the gamble by head coach Ron Rivera to go for two with 1:07 left in the fourth quarter instead of going for the tie and forcing overtime. Rivera, who is known as “Riverboat Ron” for his propensity to make some high-risk decisions, had this one backfire as Cam Newton failed to take advantage of an open receiver in the end zone on the 2-point conversion try, eliminating Carolina's margin for error in the wild-card race.
Seattle at Carolina
Kickoff: Sunday, Nov. 25 at 1 p.m. ET
Spread: Panthers -3.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Russell Wilson vs. Cam Newton
If you are writing a Hollywood script for an NFL-themed movie, Russell Wilson vs. Cam Newton would represent the good guy vs. the villain scenario. Wilson is leading the underdog upstart Seahawks through a reloading season and has that innate ability to come across well on camera by saying the right things and appealing to the masses. On the other hand, Newton is a bit more of an adventure as far as his personality. When the Panthers win, everything is great, and when they don’t, and Newton is at fault, you can bet on some moodiness or pouting that will usually go viral on social media.
On the field, both guys have done a nice job of playing to their strengths — taking advantage of their mobility while at the same being accurate with the football. Wilson has completed 66.2 percent of his passes this season while throwing 23 touchdown passes and just five interceptions. Newton has completed 68.4 percent of his passes and has thrown 20 touchdown passes and six interceptions. This QB battle should provide plenty of fireworks if both Wilson and Newton can take care of the football on Sunday.
2. It’s all about the pass rush
In a game with two mobile quarterbacks, it will be critical for both defensive lines to keep Wilson and Newton in the pocket on the majority of plays. The Seattle offense has stagnated at times this season when teams have been able to dominate up front and keep Wilson from improvising. Carolina has been up and down so far this season when it comes to rushing the quarterback. Defensive ends Mario Addison and Julius Peppers have combined for 11.5 of the Panthers' 23 sacks this season, and they will need to be turned loose on Sunday to chase down Wilson. The Carolina offensive line has allowed only 20 sacks in 10 games, and they will have a big challenge with Frank Clark, Jacob Martin and the rest of a Seahawks defensive line that will look to harass Newton early and often. Even if they don't result in sacks, the hits will take their toll over the course of the game.
3. The battle of the ground attacks
Seattle comes into this game as the top rushing team in the NFL, averaging 154.3 yards per game on the ground. The Seahawks offensive line is establishing a reputation for fundamentally sound play and growing consistency under offensive line coach Mike Solari. It has paid off for the running backs as Carson, Mike Davis and Rashaad Penny have formed a nice three-headed monster. The Panthers rank seventh in the NFL in rushing, and they will need to move Christian McCaffrey around a bit with different packages that will help keep the Seahawks' pass rush at bay. This is going to come down to whichever offensive line can avoid unnecessary penalties and impose its will on the opposing defensive line to establish the run.
Kicking off a game at 10 a.m. Pacific time is always a concern for Seattle, but the Seahawks have won both of their 10 a.m. kickoffs this season. The ability to establish control of the line of scrimmage is going to be vital for both teams and will determine how wide open both offenses will be on Sunday. Expect the Seahawks to come out flying with confidence after closing out the Packers game like they did. That is why they will find a way to get a key turnover against the Panthers and win a one-score game late in the fourth quarter.
Prediction: Seahawks 26, Panthers 24
— Written by Scott Whittum, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @ScottWhittum.