You knew it was going to go down this way.
While the Panthers were rolling through the regular season on their way to the seventh 15-1 season in NFL history, the Seahawks were heating up on the opposite coast, stringing together wins down the stretch.
As the regular season wound down it felt like these two teams, separated by some 2,300 air miles, were on a collision course and destined to meet in the playoffs.
It took a flukish series of events in the wildcard game in frigid Minneapolis – an Adrian Peterson fumble, a Blair Walsh hooked, chip-shot field goal – to set the matchup.
But here it is: Carolina-Seattle, Part 6 (with a seventh meeting coming next season in Seattle).
The sixth-seeded Seahawks (11-6) won six of their final seven regular-season games, none more impressive than their 36-6 thrashing of the Cardinals (13-3) in Week 17 in Arizona.
They’ve been given the hottest-team-in-the-playoffs label, but how do you get any hotter than 15 wins in 16 games?
The Panthers were installed as slight favorites (by 2.5 points) in the early betting lines. But there will be plenty of analysts, former players and bloggers picking Seattle.
That is just fine with Panthers coach Ron Rivera.
After the Panthers secured home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, Rivera was asked what he would use as his no-respect chip with his team holding the No. 1 seed.
“I’ll find something,” Rivera said.
He won’t have to look too hard.
But none of the bulletin-board stuff or Josh Norman quotes – entertaining though they might be this week – will mean a thing come 1 p.m. next Sunday at Bank of America Stadium.
A whole new ballgame
And while the recent history between these two teams is interesting – the Panthers are 1-4 (including playoffs) against Seattle over the four seasons – that won’t decide the divisional-round game either.
Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman last week called the NFL a matchup league, and there are some fascinating ones in this game.
Seattle’s Legion of Boom secondary vs. Carolina’s Legion of Whom receiving corps? Advantage, Seahawks.
Panthers’ Luke Kuechly/Thomas Davis-led run defense vs. Seahawks’ potentially Marshawn Lynch-less rushing attack? Advantage, Panthers.
Cam Newton vs. Kam Chancellor? Kam with a K got the better of Newton with his pick six in Seattle’s playoff win last year. But it’s tough to pick against the league MVP.
It’s tough to glean too much from the Seahawks’ 10-9 wild-card victory over the Vikings, other than the fact you can never count out a Russell Wilson-led club. But we knew that already.
Wilson had a mediocre passing game against Minnesota, although he was throwing a football that felt more like a frozen brick.
But he made the play when it counted, a ridiculous 35-yard pass that followed a botched snap that should have gone for a 20-yard loss. Instead, Wilson ran after the ball, slid to retrieve it (the base-running coach with the Asheville Tourists taught him well), rolled to his right and lofted a pass to Tyler Lockett, who took it inside the Vikings’ 5.
The Seahawks trailed 9-0 at the time. But you sensed what was coming – if not the particulars, then certainly the end result.
A Wilson touchdown pass to Doug Baldwin, Steven Hauschka’s 46-yard field goal after the Peterson fumble and Walsh’s duck-hook from 27 yards ended the Vikings’ season and kept Seattle’s alive.
And to Gettleman’s point about matchups, try this one: The NFC’s best team this season vs. the conference’s Super Bowl representative the past two years.
The Panthers came from behind in Seattle to beat the Seahawks 27-23 in Week 6. Given the Seahawks’ dominance in the series since Wilson arrived, the win was arguably Carolina’s biggest all season.
A lot of experts predicted Seattle’s victory at Minnesota, including former Chicago Bears coach and ESPN studio analyst Mike Ditka. During a Saturday interview with the Observer, Ditka said Seattle would not go quietly.
“(The Panthers) are going to have to beat a very good football team in Seattle. Seattle’s the bully on the block,” Ditka said. “They’re going to come in and they’re going to punch you in the mouth. And if you can’t take it, they’re going to beat the hell out of you. That’s all there is to it.”
But Ditka’s picking the Panthers to beat Seattle and go on to the Super Bowl, where Rivera’s former coach believes Carolina will beat New England.
But first things first: Panthers-Seahawks.