John McGrath

John McGrath: Carolina is playing with ‘house money’

The Carolina Panthers understand the long odds they face Saturday against the Seattle Seahawks.

A wild card team defying the din of CenturyLink Field and stunning the conference’s No. 1 seed? That probably won’t happen, and the Panthers, who have more bravado than their 7-8-1 regular-season record merits, know it.

But acknowledging reality isn’t a drawback for a double-digit underdog. The notion that nobody expects the Panthers to win — that not even the Panthers expect to win — could calm the tense nerves typically associated with January football.

Remember the Seahawks’ divisional playoff game two years ago in Atlanta? Trailing the No. 1-seeded Falcons 20-0 at halftime, understanding any chance of winning had deteriorated to about 1-in-100, the Hawks returned in the second half with a carefree abandon sustained until the screws tightened once they took their only lead — 28-27 with 31 seconds left. Atlanta won it on a 49-yard field goal with 8 seconds remaining.

“Playing with house money,” Carolina coach Ron Rivera calls it, meaning: His young team has nothing to lose, which can be a potent attitude when applied against the defending Super Bowl champs, who have everything to lose.

The Panthers’ strategy Saturday figures to be simple, and it begins with defense. They’ll try to prevent Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson from scrambling out of the pocket while keeping a clamp on running back Marshawn Lynch. Easier said than done, to be sure, but Carolina has had more success limiting Wilson and Lynch than any other Seahawks opponent.

Dynamic-duo linebackers Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis have a knack for being here, there and everywhere at the same time, and no NFL defensive end — not even Houston’s J.J. Watt, an MVP candidate — has been credited with more quarterback hurries this season than the Panthers’ Charles Johnson, with 56.

Carolina won’t stay in the game very long if it surrenders an early turnover or two. On the other hand, if it’s the beneficiary of an early turnover or two, and the turnovers are converted into points, look out. The Panthers’ will kill time off the clock with a ground game built around the comprehensively talented Jonathan Stewart out of Lacey’s Timberline High School.

As for Carolina’s dual-threat quarterback Cam Newton, he’s truly a dual threat: a threat to make something happen that either energizes the Panthers or dooms them.

If Newton decides he’s indomitable and delivers ill-advised passes into coverage, the Seahawks will win by three touchdowns. But if he’s able to rein in his superhero yearnings, if he recognizes the occasional broken play as beyond repair and throws the ball out of bounds, the Seahawks won’t win by three touchdowns.

Recent history suggests the Hawks will be fortunate to win by any margin. Since the 2005 season, nine of 18 No. 1 seeds have lost their divisional playoff game.

Think about that: All those No. 1 seeds enjoyed home-field advantage and a bye week. All were facing teams forced to survive the wild-card round. Half of those No. 1 seeds were beaten.

There’s no theme to the pattern. Some of the upsets were low-scoring grinders, such as the Baltimore Ravens’ 13-10 victory at Tennessee in 2008. Four seasons later, the Ravens went to Denver and prevailed in a 38-35 shootout.

Monumental upsets in divisional playoff games have been accomplished since, well, the dawn of divisional playoff games. The 1979 Houston Oilers beat the Chargers at San Diego without their offensive playmakers. All-Pro running back Earl Campbell was injured, as was quarterback Dan Pastorini.

Oilers 17, Chargers 14.

The 1983 Seahawks, whose 9-7 finish earned them a wild card berth, traveled to Miami to take on the 12-4 Dolphins, led by rookie quarterback sensation Dan Marino. Seattle was down, 20-17, late in the fourth quarter.

Seahawks 27, Dolphins 20.

There is no such thing as a sure thing in a sport associated with an oblong ball prone to take uncertain bounces, but if the Hawks avoid a catastrophic breakdown Saturday, they will win.

No sweat, right?

Just don’t forget that since 2005, the catastrophic-breakdown rate of No. 1 seeds in divisional playoff games is 50 percent.

Beware opponents playing on house money. It tends to liberate them.

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