John McGrath

John McGrath: For Seattle, nothing finer than Carolina

Pete Carroll pumped a fist, I just know it.

The Seattle Seahawks coach never will admit to a rooting interest in games involving potential playoff opponents. But at 4:45 on Sunday afternoon, as the Dallas Cowboys were lining up in victory formation, Carroll had to be thinking what all Seahawks were thinking:

Thank you, Cowboys. Thank you for assuring the Carolina Panthers, rather than the Detroit Lions, will take the field Saturday at CenturyLink Field.

Not that the Panthers aren’t due respect. Carolina is an average team with an average record — its first-round playoff victory over Arizona pushed its overall mark to 8-8-1 — and as we all know, on any given Sunday (er, Saturday), every team in the NFL is capable of beating every other team in the NFL.

But the Lions would have posed a three-aspirin headache. They took a Dallas offensive line stocked with Pro Bowlers and sacked Cowboys’ quarterback Tony Romo six times. Had Detroit won, the Seahawks were looking to spend six days figuring out ways for their often porous offensive line to protect Russell Wilson.

Wilson was pummeled during the Hawks’ regular-season finale against the St. Louis Rams, whose determination to turn the quarterback into their personal punching bag was paramount in their game plan. The Lions, never shy about drawing penalties, fines and suspensions in exchange for the chance to knock somebody out, figured to take a similar approach toward Wilson.

That won’t happen, thanks to Detroit’s uncanny tendency to beat itself. The Lions, who haven’t advanced in the playoffs since 1991, jumped to a 14-0 halftime lead before their crisp effort turned to slop.

Still clinging to a three-point advantage late in the game, Detroit was looking to continue a drive on a fourth-and-1 at midfield when quarterback Matt Stafford attempted to draw the Cowboys offside with a hard count. The Dallas defense didn’t budge — defenses aren’t prone to fall for the hard count when they can’t hear it amid the din of 80,000 screaming fans — and the Lions chose to punt.

The punt traveled 10 yards, putting the Cowboys in business for a game-winning touchdown that had a profound consequence on the Seahawks.

Spared a nasty collision with Detroit, the Seahawks get a quite more favorable matchup against the Panthers, whose victory in the wild-card round had everything to do with Arizona’s ineptitude and nothing to do with Carolina’s resurrection from the grave.

There is something to be said about a team that turns a 3-8-1 record in December into a second-round playoff berth in January, but little can be said of the Panthers’ 27-16 victory over the Cardinals. Injuries had reduced the playmakers in Arizona’s offense to a third-team quarterback and a second-team running back, and the result was historically futile: 78 total yards.

“We know who we are — menacing, stifling and we are going to get after you,” Panthers cornerback Josh Norman said Saturday. “We know when there is blood in the water and when there is, our sharks are going to eat.”

There was blood in the water, to be sure, but the blood was self-inflicted by the Cardinals, who couldn’t get out of their own way. As for the “menacing, stifling, going-to-get-after-you” Carolina defense, it’s largely responsible for the four-game winning streak that allowed head coach Ron Rivera to begin 2015 with his job intact.

The Panthers’ late-season roll was accomplished against four opponents — New Orleans, Tampa Bay, Cleveland and Atlanta — that combined to finish 22-42. The accomplishment of beating the 11-5 Cardinals in the playoff game would have been more impressive had Arizona’s offense not been hard pressed to move the first-down chains against a frat-house intramural team.

When Carolina’s defense is on the sideline, presumably sharpening its teeth for the next shark attack, things are turned over to a ball-control offense built around quarterback Cam Newton and running back Jonathan Stewart, the former Timberline High and Oregon Ducks standout, whose road to NFL stardom has been impeded by injuries: 28 starts since his rookie season of 2008.

Newton’s inability to achieve breakout status is more of a mystery. The only player in the modern era to win the Heisman Trophy, participate on a national championship team and get drafted No. 1 regressed in 2014.

Newton’s 3,127 passing yards were a career low, but the real eye-opener is the absence of explosiveness. The prototype of the mobile quarterback with a strong arm, Newton’s longest pass this season was 51 yards. His longest run was 22 yards.

Pete Carroll this week will talk of Newton as if he’s the football version of Superman. Carroll also will point out that All-Pro middle linebacker Luke Kuechly is among the most efficient tacklers on the planet, and how he’s the spiritual leader of a defense that’s rediscovered itself.

The coach will say all the right things, and do nothing to obscure the fact the Seahawks are happy they’re taking on the Panthers instead of the Lions.

Happy? More like thrilled.

Here’s hoping the ferocity of Carroll’s fist bump didn’t put out his shoulder.

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