Seahawks Insider Blog

Misty, foggy Seahawks-Panthers playoff game day in Seattle: Key matchups, and the pick

The Seahawks today are trying to become the first defending Super Bowl champion since the 2004 New England Patriots to win a playoff game in the following season. Kickoff is at 5:15 p.m. Pacific Time on Fox (Channel 13 in the Seattle-Tacoma area).

Reminder: Join colleagues Dave Boling and Kenny Via and me with Seahawks fans around the world for the live game chat from the press box at CenturyLink Field beginning around 4:45 p.m. PT here on the blog.

If you missed it (shame on you!), here's Mike Wagner, safety on Pittsburgh's "Steel Curtain" defenses that won four Super Bowls in the 1970s, and 1985 Chicago Bears coach Mike Ditka assessing where this Seahawks defense may rank all time.

TNT columnist Dave Boling on the huge comforts of home for the Seahawks.

Fellow columnist John McGrath says beware of the Panthers, whose coach Ron Rivera says are "playing with house money" today in Seattle.

My game preview that is also in today's News Tribune:

KEY MATCHUP

ALL-PRO MLB LUKE KUECHLY VS. SEATTLE’S OFFENSIVE LINE

The Seahawks’ defense has allowed just 6.5 points per game in six consecutive victories. It just became the first team since the 1969-71 Minnesota Vikings to lead the league in fewest points allowed during three straight regular seasons. Carolina has scored 12, seven and nine points in its last three meetings against Seattle, the last in October.

So it’s likely the Panthers’ only real chance for an upset is to keep the Seahawks from scoring, too. Carolina has held its foes to 11.8 points per game in its five-game winning streak.

The Seahawks’ path to points is going to be paved with the success – or blocked with the failure – of their offensive line finding and impeding the speedy, everywhere Kuechly.

“He’s a great linebacker -- just the speed,” Seahawks right guard J.R. Sweezy said. “He knows how to beat blocks and get over the top (of plays).”

But the Seahawks have a potential trump card for Kuechly they haven’t had in eight weeks. Two-time Pro Bowl center Max Unger is back from a high-ankle sprain. He is the best communicator in Seattle’s offense, the strong traffic cop who not only gets his linemen where they need to be but seals off linebackers once he gets to his spot.

As Sweezy said of Unger: “He makes us play faster. And cleaner.”

THE MATCHUPS

Quarterback

Sure, his passing’s been spotty at times this season. But Russell Wilson’s 849 yards rushing was a large reason why Seattle had the league’s most rushing yards per game (172.6). Wilson has the most wins in the first three NFL seasons any QB has ever had: 40. He’s 16-3 in December, January and February in his career. Cam Newton is rugged, athletic, fast and built like a linebacker at 6 feet 5 and 245 pounds. But he’s also error-prone, playing with two cracked bones in his back and a bad ankle, and 0-3 with a 54 percent completion rate and just one total touchdown in his career against the Seahawks. This night may be the wildest, toughest challenge he’s ever had.

The edge: Seahawks

Running back

Marshawn Lynch 1,306 yards rushing this regular season were the second-most of his eight-year career. His 17 total touchdowns --13 rushing and career-high four receiving – led the NFL. No, the Seahawks aren’t tired of that act. Robert Turbin is a more shifty option in Seattle’s 2-minute offense. Jonathan Stewart from Timberline High School in Lacey is finally healthy and has three 100-yard games in Carolina’s five-game winning streak. He grew up a fan of the Seahawks and Ricky Watters. Carolina has been missing the blocking of injured fullback Mike Tolbert all season.

The edge: Seahawks

Wide receivers

Doug Baldwin’s career highs of 66 catches and 825 yards cemented his top receiving role now that Seattle traded Percy Harvin in October, yet the Seahawks throw it less than anyone in the league (454 times in 16 games, 28 throws per game). No. 2 receiver Jermaine Kearse of Lakewood (38 catches) is back after missing one game with a hamstring injury. Rookie Paul Richardson (29 receptions) and Kevin Norwood (nine) have been slow to emerge. Carolina’s Kelvin Benjamin had 73 catches in the regular season, and his nine TD receptions led all rookies. He’s a potential game-changer – including like when he dropped a TD pass in the Panthers’ 13-9 loss to Seattle in October. Veteran Jerricho Cotchery (48 catches) is the Panthers’ No. 2 wide out.

The edge: Even

Tight ends

Greg Olson is a Pro Bowl force who leads Carolina with 84 receptions. Seattle must limit him, as they did to one catch in October, and Carolina needs to throw to him more than it did then. Seattle lost standout Zach Miller early in the season to an ankle injury. Fill-in Luke Willson’s TD catch with 47 seconds won the Oct. 26 game for Seattle at Carolina, but he also dropped passes in that game. Midseason pickup Tony Moeaki has been emerging lately, but he’s iffy to play because of a strained calf.

The edge: Panthers

Offensive line

The Seahawks get back from injury key communicator and center Max Unger, who’s missed the last six games. He will be the key to Seattle blocking Carolina’s fast linebackers. Rookie right tackle Justin Britt and left tackle Russell Okung have struggled in pass protection. Right guard J.R. Sweezy has been a standout run blocker. Seattle’s battered line has had nine different starters, including four centers. It’s finally whole again now. The Panthers’ line is healthier than it was when Seattle held Carolina to nine points in October. Ryan Kalil, whom Pete Carroll coached at USC, is one of the league’s best centers. Honestly, on a whole Seattle’s line hasn’t had an edge on anyone this season.

The edge: Even

Defensive line

Swarming end Michael Bennett has been unblockable at times on Seattle’s active, four-man front. His first step is faster than some wide receivers’, and has even fooled officials into offside calls. On third downs he often moves over the center or guard to create a speed mismatch. The Seahawks lost run-stuffing nose tackle Brandon Mebane in November, but 11-year veteran Kevin Williams has been outstanding filling in. Seattle will miss emerging rush tackle Jordan Hill, who is out injured. Charles Johnson leads Carolina’s front with 8½ sacks. But former Seahawk Colin Cole filling in for stout tackle Star Lotulelei, who broke his foot in practice this week, is a big net loss up front for the Panthers.

The edge: Seahawks

Linebackers

If there is a faster, better middle linebacker in football than Carolina’s Luke Kuechly, it may be Seattle’s fellow All-Pro Bobby Wagner, a pre-draft training buddy of Kuechly in 2012 who still stays in regular contact with him. Both are instinctive, uncanny at reading plays and faster than most running backs. Thomas Jones is the other speedy, disruptive Panther next to Kuechly. Seattle’s converted rush end Bruce Irvin has 6½ sacks and has become an every-down outside linebacker with his first two interception returns for TDs this season. Teammate K.J. Wright is almost as fast as all of them.

The edge: Seahawks

Defensive backs

The Seahawks have repeating All-Pros in cornerback Richard Sherman – whose 24 interceptions are one short of the NFL record for most in the first four years of a career – and he’s-everywhere safety Earl Thomas. Healthier-now hitter Kam Chancellor is the third Pro Bowl defensive back for Seattle’s self-described “Legion of Boom.” Carolina’s secondary could be the “Legion of Babes.” The Panthers have inserted two rookie starters since they played Seattle in October, cornerback Bene Benwikere and safety Tre Boston, plus third-year cornerback Josh Norman. Wilson and Seattle’s receivers will be testing them -- often.

The edge: Seahawks

Special teams

Seattle’s kickoff- and punt-return plus kick-coverage teams have suffered from injuries to starters that have put fill-ins in unfamiliar spots. But punter Jon Ryan remains a field-position force. Steven Hauschka has made 31 of 37 field goals, with an unheard-of three misses in one game last month at Arizona. Graham Gano has also missed six field goals for Carolina, in 35 tries, with a long of 53. Punter Brad Nortman has a 44.9-yard average and has had two punts blocked. Carolina’s punt-return average is 18th in the league, its kickoff returns are 24th.

The edge: Seahawks

Coaching

In five seasons Pete Carroll has done what everyone told him he couldn’t do when he arrived in Seattle in 2010: Win with his hip, rah-rah, always-compete vibe from USC. He’s won it all in four years, and is the first coach since George Seifert with the 1989-90 San Francisco 49ers to win the Super Bowl as a top conference playoff seed then be a No. 1 seed again the following season. Between them his two coordinators, Dan Quinn (defense) and Darrell Bevell (offense), interviewed for six head-coaching vacancies last week. Ron Rivera is 33-31-1 in four seasons as a first-time head coach for Carolina. This will be his third career playoff game as a head man (1-1).

Edge: Seahawks

The Pick

Carolina’s style – control games with an aggressive, fast defensive front and play ball-control offense with the run – is what’s made the three games with Seattle the last three seasons defensive slogs (16-12, 12-7, 13-9). I expect this to be another ultra-low scoring grudge match in which turnovers and mistakes will be amplified. But unless their white-hot defense (6.5 points allowed per game in the last six games, all wins) suddenly tanks, the Seahawks won’t need much from their offense to get back to host the NFC title game next week against Green Bay or Dallas.

Seahawks 16, Panthers 6

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