Literally. Read that story here!
Despite the "fowl" air in Seattle today, the Carolina Panthers are in town for tonight's Divisional playoff game against the Seattle Seahawks and both teams are riding nice winning streaks. After a very tough season, the Panthers have put together a five game winning streak while the Seahawks have avoided the Super Bowl curse en route to a current six game winning streak and wins in nine of their last ten contests.
On paper, the Seahawks have every advantage over the Panthers and are favored to win for good reason. They've won the last three match-ups against the Panthers, even the games in Charlotte. The two teams played a very tight game in week eight this year with the 'hawks taking home a 13-9 win on a Russell Wilson TD pass in the game's final minute.
The Panthers have a top-ten defense even after a mediocre first ten or so games in the season....give or take a game here or there where they didn't give up big plays or had a solid, if not great, outing. It really has been about the last six games that the Panthers have really put things together on defense, and I think that's because of two rookies in Tre' Boston and Bene' "The Fed Chief" Benwikere adding some athleticism on the back end that they've lacked especially at the safety position (Boston).
*editor's note: Check out the EXCLUSIVE C3 interview with The Fed Chief/Big Play Bene' AKA "Stiki Wiki" right HERE on the C3 Podcast as he's interviewed by our own founder Tony " The Professor" Dunn.
The Panthers give up 5 yards per carry - far worst of any team in the playoffs while Seahawks allow only 3 - best in the playoffs.
However, these statistics don't quite tell the whole tale - as usual. What matters is how the teams are playing now and not factoring in a couple of September games where Carolina's rush defense couldn't stop a tree sloth from a breakaway run. It's those early games that are skewing those stats. One only has to look at last week's record for offensive futility in a playoff game to see that as the Panthers gave up only 78 total yards to the Arizona Cardinals...back-up QB or not, it isn't the first time an NFL playoff team hasn't had their regular signal-caller for a playoff game. One need only see the 1972 Miami Dolphins and a man named Earl Morrall on that, so the haters can hang that "argument" up.
The Fed Chief and fellow young corner Josh Norman are one of the more dynamic CB tandems in the league now, but Bene' lacks experience and Norman lacks self-control so while both guys have room to grow, the 'hawks have established veterans in their primes.
K.J. Wright and Bobby Wagner are Seattle's answer to Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis, so they've got a response even to our most lethal duo on defense and indeed with Kam "Bam-Bam" Chancellor and Richard Sherman, their secondary has earned the nickname "The Legion of Boom."
Seattle is getting their guys back healthy and has been for the past few weeks, while Carolina is missing perhaps the most important part of their interior run defense. DT Star Lotulelei will not be playing so Colin Cole, Kawan Short, and Dwan Edwards are the three guys in the rotation and all need to step up a notch against the run. If we hear much out of Kyle Love, it means Sean McDermott is having to use the last defensive tackle off the bench and we're at the end of our rope, but we could see him for a dozen snaps or so.
Don't be surprised to see some oddball d-line personnel packages because of Star's absence. He may be the one guy that is hardest to replace as far as his job and responsibilities go, aside from Luke. I think Seattle will try to exploit his absence early and often with Beast Mode, so watch out for how the Panthers' run defense starts off the game.
This game also has the best QB match-up of any of the four games this week. We all know that Russell Wilson came into the NFL without much fanfare but has proven his detractors wrong. He has become a very polished field general very quickly while Cam Newton's growth has come in fits and starts with some backsliding along the way. It hasn't been a smooth path for Newton especially this season with lingering physical ailments and a scary rather than life-threatening car accident just a month ago.
Cam's crash had him banged up and sore for his game last week, and it showed. He gave a Herculean effort in all phases of the game last week, but wasn't on top of his game. I can't say I'm surprised, given the circumstances, and I'm not down on Cam at all over it. It's called "life."
I think the key on offense is indeed going to be Cam's health. He was missing open receivers last week and his fundamentals were as bad as they were his rookie season. While I can't explain to you all the reasons why, I can say this: When you're under duress, you always fall back to the lowest level of training that you have ingrained in "muscle memory."
That is to say, when you don't have time to "think through" your mechanics, as in an NFL game, if it's not a habit it's not going to appear on the gridiron. That's why practice and repetitions are SO important for sports figures of any kind.
Cam's issue with his could be something that he just needs to have a little more time (this past week) to get his groove back after being unable to practice for a couple of weeks while he healed up as much as he could from a broken back! The fact that he was on the field at all was testament to his competitive nature, but "wanting" it this week just won't be enough but will certainly not hurt.
They'll all have to DO it.
The Seahawks are healthy and peaking at the same time the Panthers are. The game is at their house, not ours. They have a longer winning streak and the loudest home field advantage anywhere - whether some of the noise is piped-in or not - and will be one very tough nut to crack.
Just about every traditional metric points to a Seattle victory here, but the Panthers have not one but two "X-Factors" that could make the difference and here they are:
X-Factor One: Knowledge
These two teams have played quite a bit recently for non-divisional opponents. Certainly, Seattle has come out on top each time, but they've been closer and closer games each time. The trajectory suggests Carolina is closing the gap, and at some point they'll pull out a victory against this tough, physical opponent. The Panthers match up person-for-person about as well as any other NFL team standing with the Seahawks. They match up against each other very well which is why you saw a 13-9 game this season in week eight and Seattle has only lost one game since...a game at Arrowhead.
However, all the players on both sides know each other enough to not be fooled by much of anything, and Seattle's "Tomfoolery" would come on defense, if anyplace. The 'hawks run a very vanilla offense and the two teams in fact have very similar styles on both sides of the ball but especially offensively. Both are run-first teams with mobile QBs. Wilson's a more accurate passer who runs to keep the chains moving when he has to but would rather throw the ball off of a scramble than. Cam is similar but has more runs actually called - largely because of the size difference. Wilson doesn't have the size to be hit much while Cam has linebacker size and is the most punishing running QB the NFL has ever seen and is more of a true "dual-threat" QB than is Wilson because of that power.
If the Panthers can win the mental battle, they should win the game. The refrain is common: no turnovers, move the chains, run the ball. Easier said than done for both offenses.
X-Factor Two: Hunger
I don't think Pete Carroll teams can ever not be hungry themselves, and I don't see any sort of let-down coming at all. The difference here is some of the things the Panthers have gone through that has brought them even closer together not only as a team, but as individuals.
There's Cam's car crash. There's Ron Rivera's house fire last week. Injured RBs all season. Then, there's the Greg Hardy situation which had started the season for Carolina putting them in rally mode. Now, they have Star's injury to further rally around.
The Panthers have undergone FAR more adversity this season than have the Seahawks and they've come back that much stronger because of it. The RBs are now healthy, Cam has had another week to "de-sore-ify" some more, and the back end of that Panthers secondary has had another week to further gel. Remember, this "group" has only really been a unit since after the loss at Minnesota, when the shakeup in the secondary began for real.
"Hunger" itself won't be enough to will the Panthers to a victory and neither will "knowledge" alone; they'll have to have near-flawless execution all day to have a chance as they put both "X-factors" together and go forward. Both together and focus could get them over the hump, however. Seattle is a 12-point favorite while the reality of it is that I see yet another very tight game, given how well both teams have been playing.
I just don't see Carolina falling flat or rolling over at all like they might have done after being punched in the mouth like, for instance, against the Pittsburgh Steelers in week three. This is not the same team that played the Steelers - just ask the Arizona Cardinals about how easy it is to move the ball against the Panthers. If they had the ball at their own 20-yard line and were given access to ALL the yardage they got against Carolina in four quarters, they would not reach the end zone.
This is not lost on Seattle, despite Arizona's QB woes. We won't sneak up on them and they're not laughing us off like sooooo many haters have done this year and throughout the stretch run and playoffs. I kinda wish Boomer Esiason was reading this....
If the Carolina Panthers can pull off a win tonight, the haters are the ones who will be forced to eat crow, since the Panthers' diet lately has all been feathery creatures like Falcons and Cardinals. Seahawks are on the cats' menu next.
Lastly, I would have posted this an hour ago but Melissa Stark is on NFL Network wearing a tight blue and black dress. I was drooling I mean watching purely for professional purposes of course, but I know she's from Baltimore....so why was she wearing Carolina Panthers team colors? Baltimore is black and purple!
Perhaps she's subliminally trying to make a pick or was that the closest thing she had to a "Ravens dress" in her wardrobe? One thing is for sure...I'm not going to argue with her!
The one "weakness" the 'hawks might have, statistically, is they seem vulnerable to giving up big games to tight ends, so watch for Greg Olsen to have a big game. He may very well be the difference-maker today because of it!
Carolina 17, Seattle 13
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