After a series of fortunate events, the Seattle Seahawks were able to defeat the Minnesota Panthers this past Sunday and move on to play the number-one seeded Carolina Panthers in Charlotte this weekend. What do the Seahawks need to do to win Sunday?
The Panthers and Seahawks have already played once this season, a come-from-behind win for Carolina 27-23 in Seattle. The reasons the Panthers won that matchup were a sustained and efficient running attack – running back Jonathan Stewart had 78 yards on 20 carries and two touchdowns – through the first three quarters and then quarterback Cam Newton throwing the ball extremely well in the fourth, especially to tight end Greg Olsen. Olsen had a very good game with seven receptions for 131 yards and the late touchdown catch that put the Panthers in front for good. Defensively, Carolina limited Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch to 54 yards on 17 carries. Quarterback Russell Wilson was under constant pressure and was sacked four times.
Of course, a lot has changed since the first Seahawks-Panthers game. The Panthers were on a 14-game win streak. Seattle was off to a 2-4 start. Since then, the Seahawks have won nine of 11, and has mostly played without Lynch and tight end Jimmy Graham due to injuries. It is also important to note that the Seahawks played without star linebacker Bobby Wagner and cornerback Jeremy Lane in the first matchup, but did have since-released corner Cary Williams. Lane has been a big reason the Seahawks secondary is playing well again. Plus, there is simply no replacement for Wagner, who is among the better linebackers in the National Football League. Williams was a bad fit in Seattle and the Seahawks are better without him on the roster.
The Panthers are still excellent but have suffered injuries themselves, especially in the secondary. Corner Josh Norman is one of the best in the league, but he is playing with recent signees Robert McClain and Cortland Finnegan. If there is potentially one weak link in Carolina’s defense it is the secondary. Assuming Norman blankets receiver Doug Baldwin, speedy Tyler Lockett would be left in some one-on-one matchups. Wilson was unable to connect with Lockett on any designed deep passes against the Vikings, almost completely due to the cold, but it would not be surprising to see Lockett catch one or two deep posts this week.
Wilson had a poor game against Minnesota, but two such games in a row should not be expected. If he can complete deep throws to receivers that would force the Panthers linebackers into more coverage schemes and possibly open holes for Lynch and running back Christine Michael. To win, the Seahawks need to score more than twenty points to win the game.
Again, this is not to say the Panthers are not very good defensively. They are. They have perhaps the best linebacker unit in the NFL, and their defensive front four is not far off. Middle linebacker Luke Kuechly may be one of the best three defensive players in the league. Fellow backer Thomas Davis is also an All-Pro caliber player. They are excellent against the run, although strangely they rank last in the NFL in stopping opposing teams on third and fourth downs and two yards or less to go. They tackle well and lead the league in limiting quarterbacks in yards per attempt. This seems to indicate that Seattle should throw over the top of the Panthers defense on several occasions, and Wilson is usually accurate on these throws. The Seahawks lead the league in explosive plays (plays with gains of 20+ yards) over the last two years.
Against the Panthers offense, the Seahawks need to do two things: cover Olsen much better than in the first game and control Carolina’s running game. The Panthers have not been limited to less than 100 yards rushing in any game this season. Seattle ranked first in the NFL in run defense giving up only 81 yards a game, but did allow the Panthers to run for 135 in week six. If Carolina is able to generate offense running with Newton and Stewart, and then Newton is able to play-action pass with Olsen, the Seahawks could be in trouble. On the other hand, if the Panthers cannot run the ball effectively, they will not win.
Carolina did lead the league in scoring, but they also averaged the second-best starting field position in the league. The Panthers defense generates a lot of turnovers. If Seattle can limit their mistakes and keep field position through Jon Ryan’s punting and Lockett’s punt returns, that could also lead to a win. Again, though, this was a Panthers team that drove the length of the field repeatedly against Seattle in this season’s previous game.
One interesting dynamic is that Wilson has not completed a pass in the first quarters of the past three playoff games, but the Seahawks defense has only given up a total of one touchdown in the last six away games. If these trends hold true, the game sets up as another close game for the Seahawks.
Three aspects of this game will say if the Seahawks win. One, Seattle must keep field position equal or have the edge. Two, Wilson must play well and complete a few throws downfield. Three, the defense must limit the running offense of the Panthers and cover Olsen. If the Seahawks can do all three, they will win this game and move on to their third straight NFC Championship game. Not bad for a team that was once 2-4.