A Sunday without Panthers football is just the worst kind of Sunday, but this Sunday at least we can take solace in that the only reason we aren't playing is because we were so good we earned the bye. Even though the lights will be turned off at the Bank of America stadium this weekend, we, the fans will be tuned in to the NFC games especially with rapt attention. The outcome of the two games this Sunday, of course, defines who visits Charlotte next week for the divisional round showdown.
With this in mind, let's take a look at the match-ups, the key battles, and what to expect from whoever it is we face. Looking at the games, our most likely opponent will be the number 6 seed, and our old foes, the Seattle Seahawks.
Seattle Seahawks @ Minnesota Vikings
The Seahawks enter the game in Minnesota as 7 point favorites, and understandably so. Just last month they travelled to the TCF Bank Stadium and humbled the Vikes, putting 38 points on them and conceding just 7, oh and they held Adrian Peterson to just 18 yards too. Their quarterback Russell Wilson has been on fire in the second half of the season. In the first 9 games he threw a modest 10 TD's and 7 INT's, over the next five he threw 19 TD's and no INT's. By week 17 he has broken numerous franchise records including most passing yards and touchdowns in a single season. He finished the season with the highest passer rating in the NFL and enters Sunday's game HOT. Doug Baldwin has been a major benefactor from his QB's form hauling in 14 TD's (also a franchise record) and 10 of those came in just a four week span. An accolade only Jerry Rice can match.
So Seattle is a lock for the visit to Charlotte right? I'm not so sure this one is as clear cut as everyone seems to be making it out to be. Yes they destroyed them last month, but that was a beat up Vikings defense. For the majority of that game the Vikings were without NT Linvoy Joseph, LB Anthony Barr, and S Harrison Smith, all of whom are expected to play Sunday. Also, there may be an air of arrogance behind the Seahawks which may lead to them underestimating their opponents and no doubt their opponents will want revenge. Remember when we beat the Falcons 38-0 and then lost to them two weeks later, our only loss? Were we a little arrogant heading in to that game? Maybe. Were the Falcons fired up enormously even though their season was effectively over? Certainly. Unlike Atlanta though, the Vikings have been pretty hot since that loss. They lost next time out, a close three point loss to the Cardinals, but won their last three, outscoring their opponent 107-47. This included an impressive win over the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field in week 17.
Seattle will undoubtedly aim to shrink the field and limit Adrian Peterson's touches, just like they did last month and that is the key. The Vikings are 8-1 this year when AP has had 20+ touches, and are undefeated when he has topped 100 yards. Unfortunately, they meet the NFL's stingiest run defense in Seattle, who allow a just 81.5 ypg. Peterson did not practice on Wednesday due to a lower back injury, though it is highly likely it is precautionary and he will be ready to roll on Sunday. If Teddy Bridgewater and his offense cannot establish the run early on, and get AP his 20 carries then they can kiss their season goodnight.
On the other side of the ball they need to exploit Seattle's weakness - the offensive line. Only Blake Bortles and Aaron Rodgers weathered more sacks than Wilson's 45 this season, and in Everson Griffen the Vikings have a valuable defensive end. They need to get the pressure on Wilson and force him to throw it early, or make a play. The Seahawks have a good weapon in rookie Tyler Lockett who has amassed 759 all purpose yards in the last five games as a receiver and on returns.They are also likely to have running back Marshawn Lynch back. He's missed two months but was back in practice this week. If the break has done him good, he comes back rested, fresh, and ready to go, but it may leave him game rusty, only time will tell.
The other major factor which could affect the outcome of this game will be the weather. It will be the first time since 1976 that a post season game will be held outdoors in Minneapolis, and the cold is forecast to be brutal. It is predicted that the teams will face temperatures as low as 20 below freezing, which would make it one of the coldest game ever in the NFL. The cold will make catching difficult, making the running game so much more important. With the wind likely to be around 20mph, the kicking game could be affected too.
The Seahawks are deserved favorites in this game and will probably come through as victors but it will certainly not be a walk in the park. Minnesota will come to play, and aim to avenge their defeat last month, throw in the air miles, and the weather and we could have ourselves a game.
Prediction: Seahawks 28-24 Vikings
A Seahawks win doesn't scare me, we've beaten them once this year - we can do it again. As the number three seed we can't meet the Vikings until a potential NFC Championship clash, so a Minnesota win would see us facing the winner of the battle between more familiar teams, the Washington Redskins and the Green Bay Packers. Tune in tomorrow for the preview of that game.
By Dan Rawlinson
Follow him @DanRawly