(Written by Austin Stallings)
Almost halfway through the regular season, and the NFC’s top 2 seeds from a year ago are set to clash, in what can only be for Home Field Advantage this January.*
*If you needed any more proof that the NFL reinvents itself every year, here it is.
Last season, the Seahawks and Panthers dominated the conference – posting 13-3 and 12-4 records on their way to securing division titles and home playoff games. This year, they meet for the third straight season – although not where they intended to be.
Instead of battling for the NFC’s top seed, the teams will be scrapping to keep their head above water this week – both with .500 records. While the Seahawks find themselves in third place in the NFC West, behind the Cardinals and 49ers — The Panthers, strangely enough, still sit atop their division and control their own destiny at 3-3-1.
Carolina has hosted Seattle the past two seasons as well, each resulting in narrow losses in which the Panthers failed to take late leads in goal-to-go situations. This year’s edition doesn’t appear to be the defensive struggle the prior two have been, but rather two struggling defenses looking to regain the league’s respect.
The two best defenses from a year ago have not been the same this season, as Carolina has already allowed more touchdowns through 8 weeks (24) than it did all of last season (21). A message was sent earlier this week when Panthers veteran Charles Godfrey was released, a player who had started 72 games for Carolina. His unsuccessful move from Safety to Nickel Corner has contributed to the defense’s lackluster performance thus far, but was only one of many issues.
Inconsistent pass-rush, poor pursuit angles and tackling, and a lack of overall discipline top the list for this year’s unit – who need to get things shored up fast if they hope to beat out New Orleans down the backstretch. It was made apparent very early how much Greg Hardy’s absence would affect this defense, but correctible issues such as untimely penalties have hurt even more — as displayed on Green Bay’s opening drive last week:
With the Packers facing a 3rd and 12 in their own territory – Not one, but two consecutive offsides penalties quickly made it 3rd and 2. Aaron Rodgers scrambled freely for the first down, and on the next play threw a long touchdown to Jordy Nelson – one that should’ve been stopped short if not for a bad angle by Roman Harper.
This Defense has the talent in place to be top-10 again, but must employ more discipline and better technique to do so. Against a Seattle team that has had struggles of it’s own this season, they have a chance to do just that.
Offensively, Carolina has far exceeded it’s preseason expectations thus far. Limited by injuries and inconsistent line-play, Cam Newton is playing the best football of his career – spreading the ball to 8 different receivers he had never thrown to before this season. He is on pace for career high’s in passer rating and completion percentage, but most importantly is showing his maturation through his leadership of the newly-assembled group. Along with Greg Olsen having yet another career year, the Offense has shown much promise and has a chance to carry the team if the banged up line can protect Newton. If the offense had the capacity to put up 31 and 37 in back-to-back weeks last season, the divisional playoff loss to San Francisco would have played out much differently.
KEY MATCHUP: Offensive Rookie-of-the-Year candidate Kelvin Benjamin will see the toughest matchup of his career this week, lining up against All Pro cornerback Richard Sherman. While he still remains among the elites, Sherman has been tested much more this season, and has shown vulnerability against the Chargers and Cowboys. If any receiver in the league has the physical skill set to slug it out with Sherman, it’s Benjamin. Look for this matchup often as a welcome-to-the-league acid test for the Panthers rookie.
INJURIES: The Panthers won’t have many game-time decisions this week, as most of the players on the injury report have already been declared inactive or cleared. Franchise-leading rusher DeAngelo Williams will miss his 4th straight game after suffering an ankle injury against Baltimore, but continues his pace to return for Thursday Night’s matchup against New Orleans. Starting nickel corner Bene Benwikere will miss another week with an ankle injury, giving practice squad call-up James Dockery the start after Godfrey’s release. The offensive line continues to face adversity, as 3 starters will be replaced by undrafted free agents this week. Here’s a look at the full injury report:
THE GAME: Quarterbacks Cam Newton and Russell Wilson will go head-to-head for the third consecutive year. The Seahawks lead the all-time series 5-2, including an NFC Championship game in 2005. This year, the Panthers have sole-possession of 1st place in the NFC South on the line, while Seattle looks to gain ground in their own division race.
Sunday at 1:00 pm, don’t look for the game on the usual FOX, it’s been picked up by CBS as a function of the NFL’s Flex scheduling program. The network typically broadcasts the AFC package but secured this game to increase it’s national coverage, while allowing FOX to broadcast London’s Atlanta-Detroit matchup at 9:30 a.m.
The Panthers are done with the White uniforms at Home, and will wear Black for the rest of the season; this Sunday with the classic Silver pants. As always – if you can’t catch the game, here is where you can find radio coverage throughout the Carolinas:
Follow Austin on Twitter @Austallings for Breaking News, Injury Updates, and General Football-oriented Rants.