I think this is exactly the game the Carolina Panthers – if you could ask them in their heart of hearts – would have voted to play.
Seattle is the defending Super Bowl champion and the No. 1 NFC seed. Seattle is 24-2 at home over the past three seasons, including the playoffs. Seattle will host the Panthers Saturday at 8:15 p.m. in the divisional round of the NFC playoffs.
Carolina is very familiar with the Seahawks, having played them the past three years in a row. And the Panthers’ strengths match up with Seattle’s better than they do against Green Bay.
Remember, in that Green Bay game earlier this season the Panthers trailed 21-0 before they had made a single first down. It was 38-3 before a couple of meaningless late touchdowns made the final score sound a little better.
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I know Carolina’s defense has gotten better since that day in October, but it’s not that much better. Green Bay has so much speed on the outside. Carolina is better equipped to deal with Russell Wilson’s scrambles (due to menacing linebackers Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis) than Aaron Rodgers’ precision. It was actually a good thing for Carolina that Dallas edged Detroit 24-20 Sunday, sending the Panthers to the most geographically isolated city in the NFL.
In the past three years, Seattle has never scored more than 16 points against Carolina. The problem is that each time the Panthers have scored a little less, and so Cam Newton will be the most important person in this game.
Jake Delhomme quarterbacked the Panthers in the 2005 NFC championship game at Seattle, which the Seahawks won by 20 points in a rout that was also the only playoff meeting between these teams. Seattle is widely considered to have the best homefield advantage in the NFL, and Delhomme would agree with that.
“It is a jungle,” Delhomme said. “To go play in that? Whew. I mean, just to be able to call a play....” he paused then, at a rare loss for words. “To explain to people how loud it is on the field? You just can’t.”
Echoed Panther coach Ron Rivera: “It is one of the toughest places in the NFL to play. You are playing a great team in front of a loud crowd.”
The Seahawks did lose once this season at home, to Dallas when Tony Romo threw for 250 yards and DeMarco Murray ran for 115. But the Seahawks’ defense has bamboozled Newton for three straight games.
Get this: In 28 drives over the past three games against Seattle, Newton has failed to get Carolina into the end zone 27 times. The only exception was a TD pass to Steve Smith in 2013. Newton did throw what should have been a TD pass to Kelvin Benjamin in 2014, but the rookie dropped it.
The thing is, though, the Panthers are better off playing a team like Seattle that also likes to grind things out and has a “first team to 20 points wins the game” mentality.
Carolina doesn’t have enough weapons for a offensive shootout with Green Bay, especially with Philly Brown hurting. Carolina will need to win its playoff games primarily on defense, like it did against Arizona.
Jonathan Stewart probably will have to rush for over 100 yards against Seattle for Carolina to win – he had 79 in the first game – because Seattle’s secondary is so dangerous it’s hard to imagine Newton throwing for much more than 150 yards. (He’s averaged 146 passing yards per game in the past three, and that’s with a friendlier crowd keeping it quiet on third downs for him).
Newton probably would have to limit himself to no more than one turnover. The Panther defense can’t let Wilson dominate the game.
But Seattle is a team Carolina knows and can stay with – if it can avoid the big mistake. Remember, Carolina led or was tied with Seattle for the first 59 minutes in October’s game.
The Panthers knew none of this would be easy. Even with a huge upset win against Seattle, they would then need to win again on the road against Dallas or Green Bay the following week to reach the Super Bowl.
The Panthers have done a lot of hard things well, though, over the past five weeks to get this far.
Winning in Seattle would be the hardest.
But it’s possible.