Scott Fowler

Camping at the NFC mountaintop: Seattle Seahawks still do it, but Carolina Panthers have fallen off

Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton finally got over the hump against the Seattle Seahawks in 2015, beating them twice after losing his first four attempts. But the Panthers face a mountain in 2016, and Newton is on pace for a career-low quarterback rating.
Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton finally got over the hump against the Seattle Seahawks in 2015, beating them twice after losing his first four attempts. But the Panthers face a mountain in 2016, and Newton is on pace for a career-low quarterback rating. dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com

After the final minute of Carolina’s 31-24 home playoff victory against Seattle ticked away in January, an NFL Films camera caught an exchange between Panthers quarterback Cam Newton and Seattle safety Earl Thomas.

“About time,” Thomas said, playfully referring to the fact that Newton and Carolina would advance to the NFC Championship Game for the first time in the quarterback’s career.

“You’re right!” Newton yelled. “I gotta get mine! Y’all can’t be greedy! I need mine too!”

Now we are back to Seattle (7-3-1) getting theirs again and Carolina (4-7) no longer earning its spot at the “adults table” for this holiday season.

For the past three years, it would be fair to say Seattle and Carolina were the NFC’s top two elite teams. They combined for the NFC’s past three Super Bowl appearances (Seattle two, Carolina one). They each made the playoffs every year. Carolina even climbed the Seattle mountain twice during the 2015 season – with the Panthers beating their nemesis during the regular season and postseason.

While the Seahawks have again mastered the difficult trick of staying among the NFL’s elite no matter what happens, Carolina has fallen off the precipice. Newton is no longer “getting his,” as the 2015 NFL Most Valuable Player is on pace for a career low in quarterback rating behind an injury-ravaged offensive line.

Playing the Seahawks always evokes a feeling of uneasiness. No lead is ever safe with Russell Wilson on the other sideline. Carolina led Seattle by an astonishing 31-0 at halftime in January. Then the Seahawks scored 24 straight points and – if they had recovered an onside kick that linebacker Thomas Davis had to leap high to get – could have sent the game to overtime.

As Newton memorably put it after the game, referring to the Panthers’ emotional state as Seattle mounted its comeback: “There were a lot of guys playing with their butts tight. Coaches with their butts tight. At one point, the fans and myself with butts tight, too, but you just have to find ways to get your groove back.”

That groove has turned into a rut for Carolina. The Panthers began this season losing on a last-second field-goal miss to Denver and have continued to blow games in the fourth quarter ever since.

This one, though, might not be close by the time the fourth quarter rolls around. Seattle is far better playing at home than on the road, and beating the Seahawks in “12th man” territory is exponentially harder to do. Given their injuries to key personnel, the Panthers will have to play very well not to lose by a couple of touchdowns.

NBC seriously considered moving this game out of the Sunday night prime time slot. The Panthers’ record was the reason. While Seattle has done its part to make this “seventh meeting in five years” affair a game that matters, Carolina has not. Seattle is in first place in its division – three games ahead in the NFC West. Carolina is in last place in its own – three games behind in the NFC South.

Ultimately, NBC decided to stand pat, hoping the Panthers can keep it close and the Newton-Wilson quarterback duel will be enough to make the game garner a respectable rating.

Carolina is down to its last breath for 2016, so far behind in the playoff picture that it no longer is even in the frame. But the Panthers almost always have something left for Seattle. They will be playing for pride Sunday night.

And, as Thomas said 11 months ago in much different circumstances, it’s about time Carolina did something right.

Panthers at Seahawks

Where: CenturyLink Field, Seattle

When: 8:25 p.m.

Watch: NBC

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