When: 8:15 p.m. ET Saturday Where: CenturyLink Field, Seattle TV: Fox
It was four years ago when the Seahawks became the first NFL team to win their division with a losing record (7-9) before a dramatic playoff victory at home against the defending Super Bowl champions in the New Orleans Saints.
The Panthers went 7-8-1 and are the second team to win their division with a losing record. They're coming off a big playoff victory at home, but now they face the defending Super Bowl champs on the road Saturday at CenturyLink Field.
Seattle lost its second playoff game four years ago on the road at Chicago. The Panthers hope to fare better, but they will have to win at a place where they've never won against a team that has beaten them in each of the past three seasons.
ESPN Panthers reporter David Newton and ESPN Seahawks reporter Terry Blount break down this NFC divisional-round game:
Blount: Dave, both these teams had big runs down the stretch. The Seahawks won their last six games, and the Panthers have won five in a row after it appeared their playoff hopes were over at 3-8-1. What changed for Carolina to get things headed in the right direction?
Newton: Two things. I'll start with the defense. The unit Seattle faced Oct. 26 has three new starters in the secondary. The speed and cover ability of second-year cornerback Josh Norman, as well as rookie cornerback Bene' Benwikere and safety Tre Boston, have taken the defense to another level. Since Benwikere and Boston became starters, the Panthers have gone 5-0 and allowed only 59 points. The other change is the offensive line. That group was in the midst of a streak of seven different lineups when Carolina lost to Seattle in Charlotte. The same five have now started six straight games. The running game is averaging close to 200 yards during that span, taking the heat off quarterback Cam Newton. Jonathan Stewart is running like the "Beast" Marshawn Lynch is in Seattle, averaging 101.5 yards the past six games. Getting healthy has played a big role for Carolina, but the infusion of young players playing at a high level is the biggest change.
Terry, the Seahawks seemed to be plodding along at midseason, and some were wondering if they would fall into the long line of Super Bowl champions to miss the playoffs the next season. What turned things around?
Blount: So many things it's hard to list them all, but I'll hit the highlights. First, Bobby Wagner's return after missing five games was a huge spark to the defense. The Seahawks' D has been lights out since his return, allowing only 39 points in the past six games. It says a lot that Wagner earned his first All-Pro selection even though he missed five games. Strong safety Kam Chancellor got healthy again and went back to his Bamm-Bamm bashing ways. But the biggest factor was trading Percy Harvin. The offense got back to its power-running, zone-read ways after he left, and the team eliminated a malcontent in the locker room who just didn't fit in.
This game will showcase who most people see as the two best middle linebackers in the game, Luke Kuechly and Seattle's Wagner. One thing that sets Wagner apart is his speed for a man who is 240 pounds. He gets to the edge as quickly as any inside linebacker I've ever seen. I know you asked some players about it this week, but what do you see as the assets that set Kuechly apart from other linebackers?
Newton: It's his preparation. He spends more time studying opponents than most coaches. You'll see more of that in a profile I'm writing. But you mix his preparation with his instincts and athletic ability and -- no offense to Wagner -- there isn't a better middle linebacker in the game. Not only is Kuechly a great tackler, leading the NFL with 153, he is great in coverage. He had an interception in the red zone late against Arizona on Saturday when the game remained too close to call, then he forced another by tipping a pass close to the goal line. Tight end Greg Olsen, who used to play in Chicago, has said Kuechly already is on the level of Brian Urlacher when he was at his best. That says it all.
Seattle has held Newton to one touchdown in three games since 2012. What has been the key to that?
Blount: Newton shouldn't feel too bad. The Seahawks have made a lot of very good QBs look bad the past couple of years -- Peyton Manning in the Super Bowl and Aaron Rodgers this year in the season opener, to name two. But the biggest thing is they've done what I'm sure the Panthers want to do to Russell Wilson -- cut off his running lanes and force Newton to beat them throwing. Newton had 12 carries for only 24 yards in the game at Charlotte earlier this season. Forcing any QB to beat them just by passing is a chore against the No. 1 pass defense in the NFL, which has three Pro Bowlers in Chancellor, Richard Sherman and Earl Thomas.
Dave, most of the Panthers are playing at CenturyLink Field for the first time, including Newton, Kuechly and rookie wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin. I know they've all heard about the noise in the stadium, but it can be a shocker the first time visiting players experience it. How do you think they will handle it?
Newton: They've faced some pretty loud crowds in the Louisiana Superdome the past couple of years, and they have some veterans such as Thomas Davis and Roman Harper who have played at Seattle. Harper was on the field when Lynch's 2010 "Beast Mode" run registered seismic activity. I can't say the noise won't be a factor, because it will be. The key for Carolina will be a fast start. If the Panthers can establish the run early, as they have during this five-game win streak, and score early, it tends to quiet the crowd. Plus the Panthers are using more no-huddle now, so there are more hand signals anyway. That the offensive line, as I mentioned above, has developed some continuity also should help silent communication. But you're right, it could be a shocker to the rookies, and the Panthers have two on the line at guard and Benjamin at wide receiver.
The Panthers have done a good job of shutting down Lynch the past three times they've met. Is that a concern, particularly in the playoffs where Seattle will need the running game to keep the pressure off Wilson?
Blount: It could be, but Lynch has been a monster in home playoff games. Everyone knows about the Beast Quake run, but Lynch also rushed for 140 yards in the Saints playoff game last year and 109 yards in the NFC Championship Game against the 49ers. One thing that will help Lynch this weekend is the likely return of starting center Max Unger. He didn't play at Charlotte in October and has missed the past six games. But Unger is a road-grader as a run-blocker who usually opens some big lanes for Lynch.