By Jason Sharpe
After a bye-week of rest and preparation, the NFC top-seeded Panthers host the NFC Wildcard Round-winning Seahawks on Sunday at 1:05 P.M.
CHARLOTTE N.C. – The NFC Division Round matchup for the Carolina Panthers will be one that NFL fans have seen a lot the past few seasons, and one that fans just can’t seem to get enough of. It’s almost like the two teams are fated to clash on the field, specifically in playoff games.
The Panthers and the Seattle Seahawks already faced off on Oct. 18 in Week Six of the regular season in Seattle, where the “Cardiac Cats” grinded out a narrow 27-23 victory. Now the two teams meet again for the second time this year, and for the sixth time in the past four seasons, including last season’s NFC Division Round 31-17 loss in Seattle. Prior to the Week Six victory, the Panthers had not beaten the Seahawks the prior four times they’ve met on the field over the past four seasons.
Fresh off a playoff bye-week, the NFC top-seeded Panthers host the NFC Wildcard Round-winning Seahawks, with a trip to the NFC Championship Round on the line. Both teams will be running out onto the field at Bank of America Stadium with a chip on their shoulder. The Seahawks look to avenge their fourth quarter defensive meltdown during Week Six, while the Panthers look to reverse the outcome of last year’s NFC Division Round 31-17 blowout loss attributed to turnovers, and continue their historic season into the next round of the playoffs.
Headed into the week leading up to Sunday, the “X Factor” of the game was whether or not the Seahawks’ highly touted running back, Marshawn Lynch, would be dressed out and ready to play. Lynch ruled himself out of the NFC Wildcard Round versus the Minnesota Vikings, saying that “he just didn’t feel like he had it” coming off abdominal surgery on Nov. 25 and not having played in a game since. Lynch has been practicing with the Seahawks all week, but it was still up in the air heading into the end of the week whether he would be on the field for Sunday’s game. However, we got our answer shortly after midnight Friday on the east coast. According to ESPN’s Kenny Mayne, who asked Lynch about his status for Sunday’s game, the Seahawks running back replied early Friday morning with two words: “I’m ready.” With Lynch set to suit up on Sunday, the Panthers now have two days to incorporate Lynch’s presence into their defensive approach.
To sum up what to look for in this matchup, be ready for a close, defensive game. The game will come down to the battle for yards on the ground, as well as mistakes leading to a few big plays, which will make the difference in the outcome.
Keys To The Game
1. Limit turnovers. No turnovers would be nice. Any opportunity gifted to the Seahawks’ offense often ends up with points on the scoreboard.
2. Establish the ground game early. Very simple, the Panthers must be able to pick up yards by grinding it out in the trenches. Look for the Panthers to try and established the run game early via read option plays, which has constantly kept opposing defenses guessing, which Jonathan Stewart and company have taken advantage of when Cam Newton lets them keep the ball and find the hole for the medium to long gain on the ground.
3. Pick apart the “Legion of Boom” via quick short to medium completions and by spreading the zone. The Seahawks rely heavily on their secondary, who normally play man-to-man or cover three. The Seahawks tend to be overconfident in their man-to-man coverage, so quick completions for short gains out of the slot will be key to keep the drive alive, and win the game on the clock in regards to time of possession. If the Panthers desire to go deep, they must be strategic in the huddle. They must be able to sell a run or short pass at the line of scrimmage. The offensive line must hold the pocket to give Newton time to throw, and the receivers must coordinate being able to spread the secondary when they drop back into cover three. This will hopefully lead to one or two receivers gaining a step on whoever is covering them once the switch to the zone is made, leading to an opportunity for a big gain through the air.
4. Contain Russell Wilson, inside and outside of the pocket. The Panthers’ defense must break through what has seemingly been a weaker Seahawks’ offensive line this year and force Wilson to throw off-balanced on the run, without giving him the opportunity to scramble for yardage. A “QB Spy” must be incorporated in most defensive plays to achieve this. Look for Luke Kuechly to be the man assigned this job.
5. The “X Factor” – shutdown Marshawn Lynch and the Seahawks’ running attack. With the aforementioned weaker Seahawks’ offensive line, the Panthers’ defensive line must be able to quickly shed their blocks and close up the holes for Lynch. The linebackers must be able to quickly recognize the run and rush to whatever hole Lynch tries to rumble through.
1. Generate turnovers. Specifically, force Cam Newton out of the pocket for him to make a split-second decision when throwing on the run. Newton has used better judgment this season when the pocket collapses on pass plays and he is forced to scramble and/or throw on the run. However, there is still the chance that Newton will try to force a big play in a tightly covered area, which has historically led to interceptions.
2. Third Down. Stop the Panthers on third down, specifically on third and long pass plays when Newton sees nothing down field, and decides to tuck it and run. During these situations, Newton has been a huge factor this season for the Panthers to continue drives in close games.
3. Shutdown Greg Olsen. When the Seahawks faced the Panthers in Week Six, Olsen had a day against the secondary, with seven receptions for 131 yards and one touchdown. Olsen is arguably Newton’s go-to receiver, and the secondary must adjust to cover and shutdown Olsen, as they have had trouble facing opponents’ with receiving tight ends heavily incorporated into their offenses this season.
4. Shutdown the read option plays. Newton and Jonathan Stewart and company have become extremely synchronized in running the read option. When they establish the ground game early through Newton handing the ball of to the running backs in the read option, it normally leads to medium to long yards gained on the ground. This is where the Seahawks’ defensive line comes in. On paper, they outmatch the Panthers’ offensive line, and must be able to immediately recognize when the running back gets the ball on a read option play, adjust, shed the block and make the quick tackle.
5. Wear down the Panthers’ defense. To do this, the Seahawks must mix up their play calling while running a hurry-up offense. Marshawn Lynch must be able to take control of the ground game by running hard up the middle to wear out the defensive line and linebackers trying to stop the run. By running a hurry-up offense and mixing up play calling, the Panthers’ linebackers and secondary will not only grow tired by being forced to switch on the fly to either the run or pass defense, but being constantly kept off guard will wear down the defense mentally.