The Seattle Seahawks are familiar with what's ahead.
But don’t say they are comfortable.
They are meeting the Carolina Panthers (8-8-1) for the fourth time in three seasons on Saturday night in an NFC divisional playoff at CenturyLink Field. Seattle has won all three of the previous meetings.
Seattle (12-4) has played six games inside the NFC that weren’t against division opponents. Three of those six conference games were against the other teams remaining in the NFC playoffs; Dallas (13-4) is at Green Bay (12-4) Sunday in the other NFC divisional playoff.
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Yet these Seahawks, who had a first-round bye this past weekend and haven’t played since Dec. 28, say they are more keyed up than comfy.
“We are anxious to get back to the grind. We are anxious to get back to playing football because we know where we are at right now,” wide receiver Doug Baldwin said of the defending Super Bowl champions being two home playoff wins from a return trip to the NFL’s biggest game.
“I wouldn’t say comfortable. I would say we are very anxious.”
On the NFL’s opening night, Sept. 4, in Seattle the Seahawks limited Aaron Rodgers to just 189 passing yards — one of four times in 16 games he’s been under 200 yards passing — and Green Bay had just 255 total yards, the second-lowest total this season for the NFL’s sixth-ranked offense. Seattle’s 36-16 win that night was its most complete game until December.
On Oct. 12, Dallas came to Seattle and pushed around the Seahawks like no other team has in two seasons. The Cowboys used their huge, athletic offensive line of top draft picks to plow lanes for NFL rushing leader Demarco Murray late in the game. Yet it took a remarkable third-down escape and throw by Tony Romo for an equally dazzling sideline reception by Terrence Williams for Dallas to take the lead in the fourth quarter of its 30-23 victory. That remains the second loss in Seattle’s past 26 home games.
Two weeks after Dallas, the 3-3 Seahawks were down 9-6 late at Carolina. Russell Wilson entered Seattle’s offensive huddle to start a drive from his own 20 with 4:37 remaining and told his teammates: “There is no doubt. There is no doubt.”
Wilson ran for 21 yards and completed all four of his throws for 53 yards on the ensuing drive. His 23-yard pass to tight end Luke Willson with 53 seconds to go rallied the Seahawks to a 13-9 victory that turned around their season. It was the first of nine wins in 10 games the Seahawks are carrying into Saturday.
The only team that appears to be much the same now to then is Dallas. And that’s a potentially dangerous proposition for Seattle.
The Packers? They transformed from their 1-2 start and its prolific offense being ranked 28th, winning nine of their next 10 games, and 11 of 13 to win the NFC North.
Wonder if Rodgers would feel empowered to test All-Pro cornerback Richard Sherman this time in the NFC title game, should the Packers and Seahawks win at home this weekend? He didn’t throw Sherman’s way once in September.
The Panthers have also turned themselves around since the Seahawks last saw them.
Carolina seemed to be angling for draft position after going 62 days between wins — from Oct. 5 when it beat Chicago, 31-24, until Dec. 7 when it beat New Orleans, 41-10. That was a 0-6-1 stretch in which they allowed an average of 30.1 points per game.
Carolina began getting healthier and more characteristically thumping on defense. Behind All-Pro middle linebacker Luke Kuechly, the Panthers have allowed 11.8 points per game in beating the Saints, Buccaneers, Browns, Falcons and Cardinals consecutively. A 34-3 win at Atlanta two weeks ago in the regular-season finale made the Panthers the second team in league history to win a division with a losing record. The first was the 2010 Seahawks, who went 7-9 yet won the NFC West.
Last weekend the Panthers dominated Arizona in the second half at home to win a wild-card playoff game 27-16 and advance to Saturday’s round in Seattle.
But Panthers dual-threat quarterback Cam Newton is 0-3 with a 54-percent completion rate and only one total touchdown in three career games against Seattle.
Carolina’s resurgence has coincided with a recommitment to the running game behind running back Jonathan Stewart from Timberline High School in Lacey. Stewart, who missed three games with injuries earlier this season, had 123 yards rushing this past weekend. But the Panthers will be ramming into the Seahawks’ strength; Seattle is the NFL’s No. 1 rushing defense.
Dallas may be the team best equipped to derail the Seahawks’ home march to another Super Bowl. The Cowboys are still playing like they did when they beat Seattle, with Murray running behind tackle Tyron Smith and that at-times dominant offensive line.
“To me, the biggest difference is really the commitment to stay with the run,” Seahawks defensive coordinator Dan Quinn said in October when describing this Cowboys team to previous ones. “Even when they had some games where they were down and had to come from behind to win it, they stayed consistent in the run game.”
The Seahawks were ahead and had Murray bottled up at 64 yards through 3½ quarters in October — before he romped for 51 yards over the final eight minutes.
He finished the regular season with an NFL-best 1,845 yards rushing. That plowing formula often wins when the stakes soar and the temperatures plummet on the road in January.
All-Pro middle linebacker Bobby Wagner, perhaps the most valuable man to the Seahawks’ entire defense, has returned. He broke a bone in a tendon and tore a ligament in his foot in the second quarter of that game against Dallas. Pro Bowl safety Kam Chancellor was dragging a bad hip, sore groin and bone spurs on both ankles, too. Those were two large reasons why the Cowboys rolled up 23 first downs and 401 yards — the most Seattle allowed this season.
Even with Wagner and Chancellor healthy, the Cowboys remain a huge threat to the Seahawks because of this: Dallas’ weakness in pass defense. It was ranked 26th in the league allowing 251.9 yards passing per game. But Seattle’s pass offense has been inconsistent and sometimes inert this season. Wilson completed just 14 of 28 throws for a season-low 126 yards and an interception against Dallas. His 47.6 passer rating was the lowest since his rookie season of 2012.
The Seahawks do have one thing the other three NFC teams remaining in the playoffs do not: The experience of winning it all just a season ago in this same, home-field-advantage scenario, too.
“I think it’s a positive factor, not a negative factor: We’ve been there before,” Carroll said. “We’ve been through this now, so hopefully it’ll make us stronger as we go forward.”