The lasting image from the Seattle Seahawks' 27-23 loss to the Carolina Panthers in Week 6 was Richard Sherman, Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor looking at one another in the end zone after Greg Olsen's 26-yard game-winning touchdown.
Seahawks defenders were playing two different coverages on the play, leaving Olsen all alone. Seattle blew a 23-14 fourth-quarter lead and fell to 2-4 on the season.
The two teams meet again Sunday in the divisional round of the NFC playoffs. After having reviewed the first game and looking at the numbers (courtesy of ESPN Stats & Information research), here are five questions about the matchup.
1. How will Russell Wilson and the offense handle Carolina's blitz?
The Panthers' game plan the first time around was clear: send pressure. They blitzed Wilson on 42.5 percent of his dropbacks, well above their regular-season average (27.7 percent). And Carolina had a lot of success. Wilson was just 5-of-13 for 34 yards and four sacks against the Panthers' blitz. The Seahawks started the same five offensive linemen they'll go with Sunday, but it was center Patrick Lewis' first start of the season. The offense lacked rhythm and still relied on Wilson's improvisation. He held the ball an average of 2.93 seconds in the first game.
As the offense got hot in the final seven games, it handled the blitz much better. Wilson had a passer rating of 137.0 against five or more rushers from Week 11 to Week 17. But pressuring him is still the most effective way to disrupt the Seahawks' offense, and it seems likely that the Panthers will dial up the blitzes once again.
2. What's the Seahawks' plan for tight end Greg Olsen?
Seattle ranked 26th at covering opposing tight ends in the regular season, according to Football Outsiders. In the first game, Olsen had seven catches for 131 yards on 11 targets. The film showed that he could have had an even bigger game, but Cam Newton missed him on a couple of big-play opportunities in the first half.
Olsen's catches against the Seahawks came in different forms. The Panthers ran rub routes to get him free against man coverage. He beat cornerback Cary Williams and linebacker Kevin Pierre-Louis in one-on-one matchups and found holes in the Seahawks' zone coverages. Olsen has been Newton's favorite target all year (77 catches for 1,104 yards on 121 targets), and defensive coordinator Kris Richard will be spending extra time this week coming up with ways for the Seahawks to match up with him.
3. Will the Seahawks be able to run the ball?
We don't know yet who will be running the ball. If Marshawn Lynch (abdomen injury) makes the trip Friday, he'll likely be the lead guy. If he can't get right, it'll be Christine Michael once again. But regardless, the offensive line will need to do a better job than it did the first time around against the Panthers.
Lynch ran 17 times for 54 yards in the first game, but how he picked up those yards was telling. Lynch averaged just 0.47 yards before contact in that game, 41st out of 43 qualifying players in Week 6. Everything he got, he earned on his own. Linebackers Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis were fantastic, and defensive tackle Kawann Short gave the Seahawks all kinds of problems. Carolina ranked sixth against the run and second overall defensively in DVOA during the regular season. Running the ball will be difficult for Seattle.
4. How will the Seahawks handle Carolina's diverse run game?
What was most impressive about the Panthers in Week 6 was the way they were able to sustain drives. Carolina put together three drives of 80 yards. On a 14-play scoring drive in the first, they ran the ball 10 times.
It's worth noting that Seahawks Pro Bowl linebacker Bobby Wagner was out that game, but still, the Panthers have run the ball well all season. Newton is a major factor in the run game, they use misdirection, and the variety of looks they're able to present is impressive. The Seahawks bottled up Adrian Peterson last weekend and were third in DVOA against the run. But the Panthers are a more balanced offense, and Newton makes them a unique challenge.
5. How different are the two teams now?
The Panthers lost a couple of cornerbacks down the stretch, in Charles Tillman and Bene' Benwikere. If the Seahawks can protect Wilson, there should be opportunities to make some plays in the passing game.
Seattle's two touchdowns in the first meeting were scored by Lynch and wide receiver Ricardo Lockette. Lockette is out for the season, and Lynch's status is uncertain. Jimmy Graham had eight catches for 140 yards in that game, but he's out for the season.
As mentioned, the Seahawks didn't have Wagner in that game, and Williams started at right cornerback. Williams has since been released, and the Seahawks have been going with both DeShawn Shead (81 percent of the snaps vs. the Vikings) and Jeremy Lane (76 percent).
The Panthers tested Williams deep in the first game, and they'll likely do the same against whoever is lined up opposite Sherman on Sunday.