Carolina Panthers Vs. Seahawks: What to Watch For
Wednesday, January 07, 2015
Well the Panthers, owners of a just-achieved .500 mark on the year (8-8-1), have endured a bizarre and trying season on the way to their NFC South championship, which allowed them to host the shell of a team formerly known as the Arizona Cardinals in the Wild Card round of the playoffs. We know what happened there.
Despite their midseason win-column disappearing act — they managed to go two full months without winning a game — the Panthers cobbled together enough late-season wins to “earn” the NFC South title. Such as it is — all four NFC South teams finished the regular season with sub .500 records.
When you consider that the Panthers’ entire season reflects a 17-game extension of the Seahawks’ dark period of weeks two through eight, which saw the Seahawks go 3-3 in that span; the blue birds of the Northwest look to be flying way higher than the visiting Panthers since week nine onward. And it’s true: the Seahawks have lost only once since their week eight squeaker over these same Panthers.
The Seahawks appear to have turned the corner since that time, having re-earned their status as the team to beat in not just the NFC, but the entire league.
But before we skip ahead and divert our attention to the NFC Championship game, know two things. There was only one team in 2014 that held the Seahawks to fewer than 14 points. Any guesses who it might be? (Hint: look at week eight on the schedule).
Second, NFL staffs primarily focus on upcoming opponents’ five most recent games to study for tendencies and performance. Teams evolve and adapt through the course of the season. They abandon schemes that don’t work, have been overused or plays they no longer have the ideal personnel for, due to attrition.
The Panthers staff, no doubt, has looked closely at the Seahawks’ past five games — all victories over teams with serious quarterback deficits. They’ll conclude that the Seahawks defense resumed its top ranking feasting on compromised offenses, while the Seahawks’ offense maintained its season-long identity of “just enough” offense on most game days, with a sporadic offensive avalanche on others.
The Seahawks’ coaches will have similarly examined the Panthers’ last five games. What they found: Also five straight victories —three against teams with serious quarterback problems and two against a couple of top-10 quarterbacks (Drew Brees and Matt Ryan). They’ll also note the Panthers (like the Seahawks) put up big numbers against teams with top quarterbacks (41 against the New Orleans Saints and 34 against the Atlanta Falcons) and struggled to generate much offense against their other opponents.
The scoreboard is what matters …
… Unless it reveals a tie. In which case we need to dig into some statistics to see who has the real edge. Over their past five games (all wins), the Seahawks averaged 23 points per game on offense and allowed 7.2 points per game on defense. In their last five games (all wins) the Panthers allowed a more human (but still impressive) 12.2 points per game and put up 27.6 points per game.
Going by the last five games, this one is a bit closer than it looks.
Defensively, here’s a very salient apples-to-apples comparison: The Seahawks and the Panthers both had the pleasure of playing the same opponent in the latter part of the same season—the Arizona Cardinals. I say “pleasure” because the Cardinals came up short in each of these matchups. The tally in these three Cardinals losses:
Cardinals average net rushing yards per game: 27 (against Panthers), 46.5 (against Seahawks).
Cardinals average net passing yards per game: 51 (against the Panthers), 163.5 (against Seahawks).
For what it’s worth, the Panthers set an NFL record for fewest yards allowed in an NFL postseason game last Saturday against the Cardinals. The Seahawks dominated the Cardinals in two games. The Panthers took that domination to a new level.
If you’re a Seahawks fan, you’re probably betting that one Marshawn Lynch is better than two Panthers (Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams). You’re probably right. The Panthers’ ideal scenario, of being able to line up a healthy Stewart and Williams in the same backfield, rarely came to pass in 2014. Both are healthy now, so watch for a few new wrinkles in the Panthers’ running game as they pull out all the stops in Seattle.
You’re probably also willing to wager that Russell Wilson is superior to Cam Newton. Both teams faced upheaval at their receiving positions before and during the 2014 campaign, yet the results were different (statistics via NFL.com): Wilson outpointed Newton in completion percentage (63.1 to 58.5), yards (3,475 to 3,127), touchdowns (20 to 18), interceptions (7 to 12) and passer rating (95.0 to 82.1). Give Wilson the edge in rushing yards (849 to 539), average yards per rush (7.2 to 5.2), and the big one: victories.
You may find it curious that Newton actually outperformed Wilson in passing yards per game (223.4 to 217.2) and team passing offense (ranked 19th to Seattle’s 27th-place ranking). Newton did miss two starts (weeks one and 15) due to injury. The numbers here say that Newton’s compatriots meshed better with him than Wilson’s passing pals. Credit Wilson for individual performance ever more while still keeping in mind that it is a team game.
With both teams sporting similar characteristics—stifling defense, mobile/athletic quarterbacks and a demonstrated reliance on the ground game—these two playoff opponents appear to be two sides of the same coin. But one side of that coin is weighted far more heavily than the other.
To make your way through the NFL playoffs, you have to get hot at the right time. Coming into this game, you can easily say that about both the Seahawks and the Panthers. One of them, however, is hot, rested and at home. Such are the benefits of being the conference’s No. 1 seed in the divisional round. They play the game the same way. Let’s see which of these two cross-country cousins can do better on Saturday afternoon.