Seahawks vs. Panthers: Who has the advantage?
Breaking down Saturday’s Seahawks-Panthers NFC divisional playoff game, position by position
This is a matchup of two of the top three running quarterbacks in the NFL, with Seattle’s Russell Wilson finishing with 849 yards and Carolina’s Cam Newton with 539 in 14 games. Wilson, though, is the more proven and consistent passer, not to mention already having a Super Bowl title under his belt. Wilson was intercepted on a career-low 1.5 percent of his passes this season, as important a stat as any as the Seahawks head into the postseason. Newton had a 2.7 percent interception rate this season, on par with his career number of 2.8, and committed two turnovers in the playoff win over Arizona — an interception and a fumble.
Each team features a powerful, elusive running back at the top of his game — Seattle’s Marshawn Lynch and Carolina’s Jonathan Stewart, a graduate of Timberline High in Lacey who played at Oregon. Lynch led the NFL forcing 88 missed tackles this season, according to Pro Football Focus, while Stewart had the second-most yards in the NFL in the month of December (401) and forced nine missed tackles in the playoff win over Arizona. DeAngelo Williams has been battling a hand injury but returned to play some against Arizona. Seattle has been getting a greater contribution of late from backup Robert Turbin, who had a career-high 53 yards in the regular-season finale.
Each team has had something of a revolving door on the offensive line this season but like a lot of other position groups, is peaking at playoff time. Seattle should get a boost from the return of center Max Unger, who missed the last six regular season games with knee and ankle injuries. Left tackle Russell Okung also should be healthier after suffering a bruised lung late in the season. That could allow the Seahawks to go with their season-opening starting lineup for the first time since the game against Washington on Oct. 6. Since playing Seattle on Oct. 26, Carolina has solidified its guard spots with the emergence of rookies Trai Turner (right) and Andrew Norwell (left). Left tackle remains troublesome, though, with Byron Bell rated by Pro Football Focus as the worst pass-blocking left tackle this season.
Two teams that lead with the run — no team had a higher percentage of runs over the last month of the season than the Panthers while the Seahawks were not far behind — means not a lot of gaudy passing numbers. Carolina’s top receiving threat is Pro Bowl tight end Greg Olsen (84 catches for 1,008 yards) while Kelvin Benjamin was one of the more productive rookie receivers this year, also with 1,008 yards. Fellow rookie Philly Brown provided speed down the stretch but hurt his shoulder against Arizona. The Seahawks need a return to health from Jermaine Kearse and continued progress from rookies Paul Richardson and Kevin Norwood to complement steady Doug Baldwin.
Seahawks regular season stats
The Panthers were regarded as having one of the better defensive lines in the NFL in 2013. After an underachieving first half, it began to play like it down the stretch as the Panthers held six of their last seven opponents under 100 yards rushing after allowing 100 or more in seven of the first nine. End Charles Johnson led the Panthers with eight sacks while Kawann Short was graded as the 10th-best defensive tackle against the run this season by Pro Football Focus. Seattle’s Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril formed one of the best defensive end duos in the NFL this season and Seattle got stellar play inside down the stretch from Tony McDaniel, Kevin Williams and Jordan Hill.
This game features the two best middle linebackers in the NFL in Carolina’s Luke Kuechly — who led the voting for the All-Pro Team — and Seattle’s Bobby Wagner, who was second. Kuechly made two huge plays to preserve the win over Arizona with an interception and a tip that led to another. Veteran Thomas Davis was graded the No. 5 4-3 outside linebacker this year by Pro Football Focus, one spot ahead of Seattle’s K.J. Wright. The standout play of Bruce Irvin down the stretch gives Seattle the edge at this spot, as he was particularly good against the run along with making big plays.
The Legion of Boom has a decisive edge in this category with cornerback Richard Sherman and safeties Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor all named to the Pro Bowl again. The return to health of Byron Maxwell took the secondary to greater heights during the last month. Carolina, though, has shown vast improvement in the secondary since playing Seattle in October thanks to the addition to the starting lineup of rookie safety Tre Boston and cornerback Bene Benwikere. Carolina finished the year ranked 11th in the NFL in pass defense, allowing 228 yards per game after holding each of the last five opponents to 225 yards or fewer.
Carolina’s Ron Rivera and Seattle’s Pete Carroll did admirable jobs rallying their teams to fast finishes after midseason struggles. Carolina’s issues were obviously more extreme than Seattle’s, going seven games without a win. Rivera was the NFL Coach of the Year last season when the Panthers went 12-4, and the end-of-year lineup tinkering to get some younger, faster players in at key spots was crucial to the team’s turnaround. Carroll got Seattle back on track after a 6-4 start. Hard to go against the defending Super Bowl champion coach.
Panthers regular season stats
The biggest intangible in this game may be the tangible fact that the Seahawks are playing at home. Carolina has shown the last three years it can hang with the Seahawks physically when the game is in Charlotte. But doing so at CenturyLink Field will be more of a challenge. The Panthers, though, come in playing with house money, appearing headed for a lost season a month ago and now suddenly in the divisional round of the playoffs. Seattle counters with the knowledge that NFL history is just three wins away.
The Panthers have some characteristics that could make this a tougher game than the early 11-point spread would indicate, Specifically, they have again become a good running team and are playing solid defense — two things that seem essential for a team to beat the Seahawks on the road. If the Panthers can maintain any sort of ground game and make things tough on Seattle defensively, then it wouldn’t be a surprise if they hang around a while. But Seattle also ended the season at the top of its game, and should ultimately pull away in what might not be the most artful game ever played.
Prediction: Seahawks 21, Panthers 9
Analysis and prediction by Bob Condotta, graphics by Kelly Shea