CHARLOTTE, N.C. The Seahawks have awakened here to a chilly snow/rain mix, but the forecast for kickoff is clearing to sun and temperatures in the mid-40s. That will be about 50 degrees warmer than it was last week at this time in Minneapolis.
That should help the Seahawks’ offense. Expect Russell Wilson to throw deep often today to test a Carolina secondary that has two guys -- starting cornerback Robert McClain and nickel back Cortland Finnegan -- that were out of football on their couches this time last month. Injuries forced the Panthers to sign them.
Here are the matchups and my pick for this NFC divisional playoff game, with the winner facing Arizona next weekend for the conference title.
SEATTLE SEAHAWKS (11-6) at CAROLINA PANTHERS (15-1)
10:05 a.m. Sunday, Bank of America Stadium, Charlotte, North Carolina
TV: Ch. 13/ Fox Radio: 710-AM, 97.3-FM
Live chat: www.thenewstribune.com/sports 9:15 a.m.
Line: Panthers by 1½.
Russell Wilson had the best regular season any Seahawks QB has ever had, and one of the best latter halves of a season in NFL history. Then he saved Seattle with two late plays in the cold last week. But Cam Newton has been even better throughout the entire season – but not career. He has 35 touchdowns and 10 interceptions for his 15-1 Panthers.
Marshawn Lynch is finally going to play for the first time in two months. We think. The NFL’s leading rusher and touchdown maker from 2011 until this injury-filled season is primed for a big chunk of opportunities in what could be his final game in Seattle. Jonathan Stewart from Timberline High School in Thurston County is back after missing the final three games of the regular season. He had one of his better years, 929 yards despite injury. Mike Tolbert is a big, short-yardage plow.
Doug Baldwin’s stupendous, three-fingertip catch last weekend at Minnesota came before he caught his Seattle-record 15th touchdown pass with hands that were numb from subzero cold. Jermaine Kearse has had huge games in the playoffs and against Carolina. Tyler Lockett has been big against everyone in his rookie season, especially deep. Ted Ginn Jr. has battled dropped passes but leads Carolina with 10 TD catches of just 44 receptions. But the Panthers really miss top WR Kelvin Benjamin. He’s been out all season with a knee injury.
Jimmy Graham is out for the year from knee surgery and the Seahawks’ No. 2, Luke Willson, is returning after two games out with a concussion. Greg Olsen (77 catches) is one of the league’s premier tight ends. Carolina won’t make the mistake Minnesota did last week and not throw to the tight end versus a defense that’s struggled against them.
The Seahawks’ remade unit continues to improve, with the midseason switch to Patrick Lewis at center sparking Wilson’s huge season throwing from a more trusted pocket. Carolina’s line allowed 33 sacks in the regular season, 13 fewer than Seattle but still in the bottom half of the league. Its strength is run blocking and up the middle anchored by C Ryan Kalil. Its weakness are RT Mike Remmers and LT Michael "The Blind Side" Oher.
Michael Bennett was unblockable for most of last week’s Seahawks win at Minnesota. He is too quick for most offensive linemen off the snap. He and fellow end Cliff Avril are key to keeping Newton from running. Tackles Brandon Mebane and Ahtyba Rubin are why Seattle is allowing just 36 yards rushing per game in Seattle’s last six road games. DT Kawann Short leads Carolina with 11 sacks and is an issue for Seahawks LG Justin Britt. Jared Allen, once the league’s feared sack end, has just two this season.
Seattle’s middle man Bobby Wagner is in the Pro Bowl again, but weakside LB K.J. Wright had the more dynamic season and should be there, too. Bruce Irvin has seven of his 25½ career sacks against Carolina. These could be his last Seahawks game$. Middle man Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis on the weakside are the fastest and best linebacker duo in the league. Those two are a big problem for Seattle’s offensive line.
The Seahawks’ vaunted "Legion of Boom" has struggled with deep passes, especially down the middle to tight ends. Safeties Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas will be huge in this one against Olsen. All-Pro cornerback Josh Norman has long arms as one of the best in the game. But injuries are forcing Carolina to start 5-foot-9 CB Robert McClain, who was at home unemployed and brushing up on a painting hobby until last month. Cortland Finnegan, the fill-in nickel back inside, was semi-retired until the last week of November.
Seattle’s helped win last week’s game. Tyler Lockett’s returns change contests. Steven Hauschka will enjoy kicker in warmer weather. And Jon Ryan might not be running much anymore while punting with a broken nose. Graham Gano is 32 for 38 on field goals for Carolina. Brad Nortman’s net punting average ranks in the middle of the league. Ginn averages 10.3 yards per punt return. Kickoff returner Fozzy Whittaker missed practices this past week with an ankle injury.
Pete Carroll is 8-3 in the playoffs leading Seattle, with a Super Bowl title. He stunned players by tackling a whiteboard in the meeting the night before last week’s win at Minnesota. What will he do next? Offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell will use more of the playbook with temperatures 50 degrees warmer than in Minnesota. Carolina’s "Riverboat" Ron Rivera, one of the nicest guys in coaching, has a reputation for gambling decisions during games, especially on fourth downs.
Carolina has that new, we’ve-arrived feel that Seattle had in the 2013 season on the way to winning the Super Bowl. But nine of the Panthers’ 15-1 wins have come against their woeful NFC South and the ugly AFC South. The Seahawks’ reborn offense gets back to its pre-Minnesota-arctic ways of Wilson’s deep balls against Carolina’s patchwork secondary away from Norman. And Seattle’s road show rolls on in a stunning way.
Seahawks 20, Panthers 17