This changed Sunday night: New England is now the reigning NFL champion after winning one of the most fascinating Super Bowls ever played.
This did not change: Seattle remains the best team in the NFC.
The Seahawks were 36 inches from a second straight Super Bowl victory before losing 28-24 on an interception at the New England 1 in the final minute. Seattle has gone 4-0 against Carolina in the past three seasons and plays the Panthers again in the 2015 regular season (in Seattle). So the Seahawks are the team Carolina must go through if the Panthers plan on making an appearance in the biggest game anytime soon.
What should the Panthers learn from that Super Bowl? Three things:
1. You can beat Seattle by throwing short. New England scored 28 points by basically ignoring the receiver Richard Sherman was guarding and throwing the ball short constantly for gains of 6-10 yards everywhere else by getting its wide receivers, tight ends and running backs matched up against Seattle’s linebackers. That was the blueprint. Carolina has not scored more than 17 points in any of its past four matchups with Seattle, so this is worth a serious look.
It helps, of course, if you have an incredibly quick slot receiver such as Julian Edelman. But the Patriots didn’t do it just with Edelman. Running back Shane Vereen was also a huge factor and, of course, tight end Rob Gronkowski.
Still, New England never had a single offensive play go for 25 or more yards. The Patriots just nickel-and-dimed Seattle all the way down the field, over and over. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Brady completed 28 of 32 passes for 194 yards and two scores on passes that were thrown within 5 yards of the line of scrimmage.
Carolina, which has gone for the big play too often against Seattle, could do more of this. It needs some better personnel at a couple of key positions, but it could be done. Cam Newton isn’t as accurate as Brady, but get him a quicker slot receiver and a more reliable left tackle and I promise you it will all look a lot better.
2. Don’t get too cute. What in the world was Seattle doing getting Russell Wilson to throw the ball at the New England 1 on second-and-goal with 26 seconds and one timeout still left? Marshawn Lynch absolutely had to carry the ball there – he had almost scored on the previous play from the 5.
This is a lesson well worth remembering for Carolina. Everyone knows Newton is good on the quarterback sneak from the 1? You still have to sneak him most of the time, especially on second down when you have a timeout.
Now that doesn’t mean you never pass from the 1 – just don’t throw a slant pass into a crowd. On the Panthers’ most recent offensive play from the 1, against Arizona in the playoffs, Newton faked a run and threw to a wide-open Mike Tolbert in the flat. Tolbert caught it and could have crawled into the end zone.
Another stat courtesy of ESPN: NFL teams ran the ball 223 times from the 1 this season and scored on 58 percent of those attempts. On the other hand, NFL teams tried 109 pass plays from the 1 this season and scored 61 percent of the time.
And get this. On those 109 passes from the 1 this season, there was only one interception – Wilson’s in the Super Bowl.
3. There is no such thing as having too many good pass rushers or too many good cornerbacks. That vaunted Seattle defense could not get to Tom Brady on his two fourth-quarter TD drives. It looked tired. And that’s the best defense in the NFL. And once one Seattle defensive back was hurt, the Seahawks suddenly looked very vulnerable. Brady eviscerated Seattle in the fourth quarter as New England scored half its points in the final eight minutes.
This is a lesson Dave Gettleman understands. I bet the Panthers general manager will draft another pass rusher somewhere in the 2015 draft, both because he loves them and because I don’t see any way Greg Hardy returns to Carolina no matter the outcome of his domestic abuse trial.
But the Panthers also need to get at least one more corner or safety who can really run, because Seattle repeatedly took advantage of the Panthers’ young secondary in the Seahawks’ 31-17 playoff win in early January.