The Seahawks plan on not only tugging on Superman’s cape — but yanking it and him down to the ground.
Just as they have four of the five times they’ve played Cam Newton.
The Carolina Panthers quarterback is having a season that likely will earn him the NFL’s most valuable player award. He’s thrown for 35 touchdowns and 3,837 yards, with only 10 interceptions. He has another 10 touchdowns rushing. That’s 45 total touchdowns with a career-low 33 sacks.
And, oh yeah, his Panthers have the league’s highest-scoring offense and best record, 15-1. Carolina, the conference’s top seed, is coming off a bye as it enters Sunday’s NFC divisional playoff against the Seahawks (10-6).
Newton punctuates touchdowns by pantomiming ripping off his outer garment at the chest to display a presumed, superhero “S” on it.
And in this, the biggest game yet on the NFL stage for the league’s No. 1 overall draft choice in 2010, Newton is going to try to be Superman, Batman, EveryHeroMan.
“I mean, I expect the ball to be in his hands, you know?” Seahawks Pro Bowl middle linebacker Bobby Wagner said. “Everybody is trying to make it to the Super Bowl, so the playmakers are going to have the ball in their hands. He is the playmaker for that team, so I expect him to have the ball a lot — whether it’s throwing the ball, running the ball, whatever.”
Some are calling this the premier game of the weekend, featuring the two-time defending conference champion Seahawks and their would-be heirs to a Super Bowl berth.
“I don’t think it’s the Super Bowl,” Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson deadpanned. “Fortunately enough, we’ve been there twice.”
The Seahawks have the experience. Do they have the kryptonite for Carolina’s Superman?
They know him better than anyone outside of the Panthers’ NFC South, and maybe some in it. This is the sixth time in the last four seasons that Seattle has played the Panthers. That includes a 31-17 home win at CenturyLink Field in this round of the playoffs 12 months ago, when Kam Chancellor turned a Panthers’ red-zone drive into a three-score Seahawks’ lead with an interception of Newton and 90-yard return for the clinching touchdown.
Newton is 1-4 in his career against Seattle. The only win was in the last meeting, on Oct. 18, at CenturyLink Field. Newton found tight end Greg Olsen down the middle of a confused Seattle coverage for a touchdown pass with 32 seconds left to complete a Carolina rally from nine points down in the final 5 minutes.
His four career losses against Seattle are at least twice more than against any other opponent outside Carolina’s division. His two touchdown passes and career completion rate of 54.6 against the Seahawks are his lowest against any foe that he’s faced at least three times.
The second-worst completion rate in his career came against Seattle in a 2012 loss.
And Seahawks linebacker Bruce Irvin could be Newton’s Lex Luthor. Against Carolina, Irvin has seven career sacks of Newton. That’s more than 27 percent of Irvin’s career regular-season and postseason total of 25 1/2 sacks, and four more than he has against any other team or quarterback.
“It’s weird, because I always play good against Cam,” Irvin said. “Maybe it’s because we are both from Atlanta? You think so? I don’t know, bro.
“But now that I notice that, I’m really going to try harder now. Cam’s a great athlete. He’s really hard to take down.”
The 6-foot-3, 248-pound Irvin noted that at 6-6 and 260 pounds, Newton is “bigger than most of our D-line. He’s a big dude.
“So I don’t know how I’ve gotten him down seven times,” Irvin said. “Hopefully it can be the same man, go out there and play good defense and hopefully make him one-dimensional.”
Ding! Ding! That is why Seattle has had so much success against Newton. And that will be the key to the Seahawks’ quest Sunday to reach a third consecutive NFC Championship Game the following week.
Seattle’s ultra-quick pass rush — with Irvin motivated by a postseason stage in a contract year, and with zooming ends Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril — has largely succeeded in the previous five meetings by taking away Newton’s threat to run. Seattle has not allowed Newton to extend passing plays by getting outside off the edge, where he is most dangerous and uniquely accurate down the field.
The Seahawks have sacked Newton 13 times and intercepted him three times in five games. Newton has only one of his 43 career rushing touchdowns against the Seahawks, and has managed only 34.2 yards rushing per game against them, seven yards below his career average.
“With Cam, you want to try to make him one-dimensional,” Irvin said. “You can’t make him have choices (where) he feels like he can beat you with his legs and his arm. That’s when you are in trouble.
“But when you get a little pressure on him and make him throw, that’s when — he’s got such a strong arm and guys with strong arms feel they can fit balls into tight windows or into spaces that aren’t really there,” Irvin said. “So I feel like if we rush him and stop the run, and really try to make him force throws in, we can have a lot of success against him.”
Making offenses one-dimensional is how the Seahawks have won six consecutive road games, dating to late October. The NFL’s top-ranked rush defense has allowed an average of only 36 yards rushing in those six games and one offensive touchdown.
The Seahawks held Adrian Peterson to 45 yards on 23 carries in the Minnesota ice box during Seattle’s 10-9 win in the wild-card round last weekend.
So they just throttled the league’s rushing champion for the second time in a month and now the Seahawks must slow down the possible league MVP and the catalyst for a team that’s lost twice in its last 22 games, dating to November 2014.
That’s been a lot of Superman-ing and celebrating in the end zone for Newton.
The Seahawks — unlike many observers lately around the country — have no problem with that.
“No. You get to the end zone, in an NFL game, you get the right to celebrate,” Seattle Pro Bowl cornerback Richard Sherman said. “You’ve worked hard. You’re a professional athlete. If you don’t get a chance to celebrate in the pros, when do you get a chance to celebrate? When do you get to show what you can do — to enjoy yourself?
“This is a game. Some people who have never played it, who have never expressed passion, sit behind desks all day and do that. Maybe you celebrate sometimes when you do something great, and nobody judges you because nobody is watching. As you’re watching him, enjoy it, because he is enjoying it. He can enjoy his craft. If he wants to celebrate, that’s fine.”
Bennett’s been selected for his first Pro Bowl after his career-high 10 sacks and a season, including last week against the Vikings, of being mostly unblockable and quick off the snap. He has unassailable logic for how to change Newton’s Superman persona Sunday.
Seattle has Marshawn Lynch running for the first time in two months. It has Wilson throwing at record levels. But Bennett is the one, sure way the Seahawks would remain on their road trek toward a third consecutive Super Bowl.
“If you want somebody not to do something, you’ve just got to stop them. If you hold a team to zero points, then you don’t see any dancing,” Bennett said.
“If you don’t want a guy dancing in the end zone, it’s real simple: Don’t let him get to the end zone.”
Gregg Bell: @gbellseattle