The Carolina Panthers have come painfully close to knocking off Seattle the past three years, but Las Vegas bookmakers aren’t expecting another close game this weekend.
The Panthers are 11-point underdogs in Saturday’s NFC divisional-round game at CenturyLink Field, despite dropping the past three meetings with the Seahawks by a total of 13 points.
Panthers fullback Mike Tolbert said he didn’t know the betting line until a reporter told him Tuesday.
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“That’s so disrespectful to our defense,” Tolbert said. “I’m sure they’re taking it personally.”
At least one member of the defense is.
“That’s bull,” said cornerback Josh Norman, who questioned the football acumen of Vegas odds-makers. “I don’t know where they get their diplomas from. They probably haven’t touched or looked at a football, let alone played it.”
Many experts believe the Panthers (8-8-1) match up well with the reigning Super Bowl champion Seahawks (12-4), who won their final six regular-season games to claim the NFC West title and earn a first-round bye and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.
The Seahawks are 24-2 at home over the past three seasons, including the playoffs. Their wins against Carolina during that span all came in Charlotte.
Behind a famous fan base known as the “12th Man,” the Seahawks have won seven home playoffs games in a row.
Tolbert said “the crowd’s not playing the game” Saturday, when the Panthers will try to get over the hump against a team that has beaten them four games in a row.
“I think there were some guys in here that actually wanted to play Seattle. Some guys, like myself, didn’t care who we played, as long as we were playing,” Tolbert said. “But as a competitor, as a person, as a football player, you want to beat the best. And right now they’re the king of the hill, and we’re trying to knock them off.”
The Panthers’ three losses to Seattle under Ron Rivera have all been tight, low-scoring games dominated by the defenses.
Carolina has been doomed by its red-zone efficiency, as well as by big plays – too many for Seattle and not enough for the Panthers.
In the three defeats, the Panthers had a total of five plays that covered 20 yards or more, compared with nine for the Seahawks. Two of Seattle’s big plays were fourth-quarter touchdown passes by Russell Wilson that won the 2013 and 2014 games.
Meanwhile, Panthers quarterback Cam Newton has led only one touchdown drive in 28 possessions against Seattle. Carolina’s defense – with in intereception return for a score by former cornerback Captain Munnerlyn in the 2012 game – has had as many touchdowns as the offense against the Seahawks.
“Whether it be the big, long run or big, long pass, we haven’t been able to do that consistently,” Rivera said. “Doing that, giving ourselves an opportunity – whether it be in the red-zone scoring or a couple of big plays – finishing it off gives us that opportunity.”
Getting Tolbert back could help in the red zone. Tolbert, who led the Panthers with seven touchdowns in 2013, missed the 13-9 loss to Seattle on Oct. 26 while on short-term injured reserve with a leg injury.
He scored on a 1-yard catch last week in the 27-16 win against Arizona in the wild-card round.
“I think I can make a big difference,” said Tolbert, declining to offer specifics about the Panthers’ red-zone plan.
Carolina was among the NFL’s worst teams all season at scoring touchdowns in the red zone. The Panthers’ touchdown percentage of 45.5 on drives inside an opponent’s 20-yard line ranked 27th.
That included an 0-for-3 mark in the loss to Seattle, when the Panthers got in the red zone on their first three series but managed only two field goals and a fumble by Newton.
“We’ve got to finish better,” center Ryan Kalil said. “We’ve been saying all year, we’ve done a good job moving the ball down the field. We’ve got to finish in the red zone, especially against really good teams. This is a really good team.”
Seattle was No. 1 in total defense and scoring defense for the second year in a row. After a slow start, the Panthers improved from 27th in total defense near midseason to finish 10th.
During their current five-game winning streak, the Panthers have given up 11.8 points and 238.2 yards a game. The defense boosted that figure last week by holding the Cardinals to 78 net yards, the fewest ever allowed in a postseason game.
“The way our defense is playing right now, I’d put us up against anybody – Green Bay, Seattle – it doesn’t matter,” Tolbert said. “Offense is clicking, too. So we’re a force to be reckoned with, no matter if we were 7-8-1 coming into the playoffs.
“We’re 1-0 in the playoffs. That’s all that counts right now.”