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Originally published January 5, 2015 at 6:59 PM | Page modified January 6, 2015 at 10:09 PM

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Seahawks vs. Panthers: Don’t expect Saturday’s playoff game to be easy

Carolina comes to Seattle looking a lot better than the last time they met the Seahawks


Seattle Times columnist

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The Seahawks will open the playoffs against a team with a losing record in the regular season, one they’ve held to an average of nine points in beating each of the past three seasons — all on the road — and guided by a wounded quarterback whose maddening inconsistency has been his calling card.

So the conclusion is obvious — this is going to be one hellaciously tough matchup against the Carolina Panthers.

Wait, what?

The Seahawks-centric will point out that Seattle doesn’t resemble the team that just barely pulled out a 13-9 win in Charlotte in Week 8. That victory required an 80-yard touchdown drive engineered by Russell Wilson in the waning minutes to overcome a 9-6 deficit.

Those Seahawks were barely a week removed from the Percy Harvin trade, their rumored locker-room rifts not yet beaten down by the Kumbaya spirit of subsequent weeks. A defeat would have left them 3-4 and gasping for life, but instead they’ve won nine out of 10 and regained every bit of their dominance.

Ah, but these aren’t the same Panthers, either.

Not by a longshot.

This is a team that, despite losing six consecutive games at one point this season, comes into CenturyLink with two huge intangibles on their side: Momentum (a five-game winning streak, capped by the 27-16 wild-card playoff victory Saturday over Arizona), and the liberating underdog’s mindset of having nothing to lose.

They also have some tangibles on their side as well, starting with a suffocating defense.

It has been dominating since coach Ron Rivera tweaked the lineup by inserting rookies Bené Benwikere and Tre Boston into the secondary.

With top-notch linebackers Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis, the Panthers have the capability to limit Wilson’s scrambles. They’ve also held Marshawn Lynch more or less in check, limiting him to a 63-yard average in those three games.

The result has been a series of fierce defensive slogs in which the final score looks like a Coors Field baseball result — 13-9, 12-7, 16-12. Those are the kind of games that should make Seahawks fans a little nervous: One untimely turnover or defensive breakdown, and those narrow Seattle victories could have gone the other way.

And the Panthers know it. There’s a school of thought that they privately preferred a Seahawks matchup to having to play at Green Bay, where Carolina fell behind 38-3 before losing 38-17 in October.

Carolina quarterback Cam Newton is the ultimate wild card. He is not far removed from the two fractures in his lower back after a car accident last month, and he reinjured his surgically repaired left ankle Saturday.

Newton always has had a tough go against Seattle, as evidenced by this great stat unearthed by Charlotte Observer columnist Scott Fowler: In 28 drives over the past three games against Seattle, Newton has failed to get Carolina into the end zone 27 times. The only touchdown came on a pass to the since-departed Steve Smith in 2013.

Yet Newton still is a 6-foot-5, 245-pound physical marvel capable of brilliant feats, if only in short bursts. And that might be all the Panthers need, based on the trend of their earlier matchups: A short burst of brilliance at a decisive moment, as Wilson pulled off last time.

This is not to say the Seahawks are going to lose, mind you. First of all, none of those previously mentioned struggles took place in Seattle, where the Panthers got a firsthand taste of the Seahawks’ home-field advantage in their 34-14 defeat in the 2005 NFC title game.

Jake Delhomme was Carolina’s quarterback that year, and he told Fowler this weekend, “It is a jungle. To go play in that? Whew. I mean, just to be able to call a play ... To explain to people how loud it is on the field? You just can’t.”

The Seahawks are an 11-point favorite for a reason. They are healthier, mentally and physically, than they were when the two teams met earlier. They have a quarterback in Wilson who has shined his brightest in the postseason. They have the only defense in the NFL that has been stingier down the stretch than Carolina.

They also are starting to smell not just another title, but the historical significance it would bring. They are playing for their legacy now, with a coach in Pete Carroll who is unparalleled in pushing the right motivational buttons in the biggest games.

The Seahawks are right where they should be to start a three-step march toward the promised land. And I expect them to successfully execute Step No. 1. But I suspect Carolina, as usual, will cause some trepidation en route.

Larry Stone: 206-464-3146 or lstone@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @StoneLarry



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About Larry Stone

Larry Stone gives his take on the local and national sports scene.
lstone@seattletimes.com

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