“Would any Carolina Panthers fan doubt their team could beat the Seahawks…after narrowly losing to the reigning Super Bowl Champions 13-9 Week 8?… The point of my impossible Seattle scenario was to show that even a seemingly daunting playoff situation is well within reach.”
Those two lines from my December 28th article described a then impossible playoff scenario for the Wild Card round of the playoffs to show that, all things considered, the Carolina Panthers had as good a chance as anyone at doing the impossible – beating the reigning Super Bowl Champion Seattle Seahawks.
The Carolina Panthers have come alive the past several weeks going from a disappointing season to a division title, and now face those top-seed Seattle Seahawks in the Divisional Round of the playoffs at CenturyLink Field in Seattle Saturday at 8:15 PM EST. The Seahawks are 16-2 at home the past two years, including the playoffs.
Sound like an impossible hill to climb? It shouldn’t, as these Carolina Panthers a much better team than they were almost three months ago when the faced Seattle. Then again, the Seattle Seahawks are a much better team then they were in that Week 8 match up.
The Seahawks were a 3-3 team back then and were entangled in some locker room beef, despite what the players will tell the media, largely thought to be due to understandably enlarged egos. Including that Week 8 win against the Carolina Panthers the Seahawks have gone 9-1 since and have regained the league’s top defense.
There’s another team that has regained some form on the defensive side of the ball – the Carolina Panthers. Consider this: Midway through the fourth quarter of the Wild Card playoff game against Arizona, the Cardinals had yet to gain 100 yards of total offense and had only gained positive yardage on four plays. That is remarkable, whether Ryan Lindley led the offense in question or not.
Why the sudden return to form on defense? Look no further than the leaders of said defense, two players that could compete for the Defensive Player of the Year (DOY) if it weren’t for JJ Watt, linebackers Thomas Davis and Luke Kuechly.
I predicted Davis would win the DOY at the beginning of the season, and although he won’t he hasn’t disappointed. Although he regressed to some extent, Davis finished the season with 100 combined tackles, 2.5 sacks, and two forced fumbles in 15 games.
Speaking of Defensive Player of the Year, reigning DOY Kuechly had another worthy season leading the NFL in combined tackles, and achieving career highs in sacks and forced fumbles. Both Kuechly and Davis have also played at the highest level all season down the stretch and through the Wild Card playoff game. The Carolina Panthers will need their leaders in the middle as they face Marshawn Lynch and the league’s top-ranked rushing attack.
One troubling aspect to the Divisional Round game against the Seattle Seahawks is the absence of defensive linemen Star Lotulelei, out with a fractured foot. Lotulelei played in 15 games this season including the playoffs and provided an anchor for the defense to feed off of throughout the season.
Normally a loss like Lotulelei’s would be devastating, but the Carolina Panthers have been filing in defensive linemen all season with great success. Besides Pro-Bowl defensive end Charles Johnson, already known for his defensive exploits, the Panthers got major contributions from veterans Dwan Edwards and Colin Cole, and also from young players like Mario Addison, Kwan Short, Wes Horton and rookie Kony Ealy.
These players combined for 22 sacks, and combined with Johnson (8.5) and Lotulelei (2.5), had the Carolina Panthers had the services of All-Pro defensive end Greg Hardy, it could be argued the Panthers would have had as many sacks as in 2013, when they led the NFL with 60. In other words, the loss of Lotulelei is big, but these guys can still slow the run for Davis and Kuechly and they all get to the quarterback.
The Carolina Panthers go into Saturday’s game 11-point underdogs, according to my sources, and couldn’t be further apart statistically. In all of the major statistical categories that most experts qualify, the Panthers only best the Seahawks in one: offensive first downs. Then why does it seem like the Panthers have a chance?
Perhaps it’s the fact these two teams are built similarly, and they play the same style of football. Both teams have mobile, athletic quarterbacks, above average running games, good special teams, and great defenses. Maybe it’s the fact that the Carolina Panthers are hot and playing their best football of the season; they’ll be facing a Seahawks team that will not have played in two weeks. It could be the fact that despite the recent adversity the team has only become stronger.
No, the reason the Panthers have a chance to win Saturday is simple. The defense is playing at their highest level all year, the running game is back to being the three-headed monster of Jonathan Stewart, DeAngelo Williams, and Mike Tolbert, and Cam Newton, with a new perspective on life, is a man on a mission.
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