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Marshawn Lynch vs. Luke Kuechly a critical matchup in Seahawks-Panthers

Seattle Seahawks at Carolina Panthers, Sunday 1 p.m. (Fox, WJZY)

Scott Fowler is a national award-winning sports columnist for The Charlotte Observer.

While many ACC fans will keep a close eye on former N.C. State quarterback Russell Wilson on Sunday, the Panthers might have even more trouble with Marshawn Lynch. Watch out for No. 24 – he has rushed for more than 100 yards in 16 of his past 25 games and made each of the past two Pro Bowls.

Lynch got only five carries in the preseason, but don’t be fooled by that. The Seahawks were just trying to limit his hits because he’s going to take so many in 2013, and he will be a workhorse Sunday. If he rips off a lot of 8- to 10-yard runs, Carolina’s defense never will have much chance to use its pass rush. The Seahawks ran the ball more than any other NFL team in 2012, which took a lot of the pressure off Wilson. Rookie defensive tackle Star Lotulelei needs to have a big game to allow middle linebacker Luke Kuechly to zero in on Lynch. Kuechly probably needs to be involved in at least one turnover for Carolina to win.

•  In Carolina’s 16-12 loss to Seattle in Charlotte a year ago, the Panthers’ offense generated three points. The touchdown came from Captain Munnerlyn’s interception return of a Wilson pass, and the Seahawks took an intentional safety late in the game.

•  Does Jon Beason have something to prove? You bet. The Panthers’ linebacker was once in the middle of the Carolina defense and a team captain. Now he is neither – he has shifted to outside linebacker to accommodate Kuechly’s emergence and he was not voted a team captain this season. How well Beason plays – and if he can stay on the field after missing 27 of the past 32 games because of injury – is a huge key for Carolina.

•  In Saturday’s special Panthers section, I picked the Panthers to go 10-6 and make the playoffs for the first time since 2008.

If the Panthers are going to get it done this season, these are the types of games they must win – at home against a quality opponent. My pick: Carolina 23, Seattle 21.

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