No. 6 Seahawks (11-6) @ No. 1 Panthers (15-1) | NFC Divisional Round Playoff

Seahawks vs Panthers
NFL Divisional Round
Sunday, 1:05 ET
Bank of America Stadium
Charlotte, North Carolina

Watch Seahawks vs Panthers NFC Divisional Round Live

Watch Seahawks vs Panthers NFC Divisional Round Live

Carolina offense vs. Seattle defense

Another story you’ll hear 100 times this week: how soon-to-be league MVP Cam Newton’s turning point was his Week 6 road comeback over a Seahawks team that had beaten Carolina five straight times, including last year in the Divisional Round. Indeed, Newton was sensational late in that game and we began to see him in a different light. Since then, he’s only gotten better. But so have the Seahawks. They’re back to playing the basic Cover 3 zone and various straight man-to-man concepts that have defined their success.

Seattle’s pass rush is potent, but Carolina does so much with max protection (i.e. keeping seven blockers in rather than just five) that the key becomes maintaining coverage discipline downfield. Few offenses are as good with deep zone-beater route combinations as offensive coordinator Mike Shula’s. The system’s reliability is one reason the mega-armed Newton has become a top-tier pocket passer. In this game, stopping Carolina down the seams is crucial; it’s where Greg Olsen resides and where Cover 3 zones can be vulnerable depending on the accompanying routes from the outside receivers. So is combatting Carolina’s deep in-breaking routes, something Seattle didn’t do well in Week 6.

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Watch Seahawks vs Panthers NFC Divisional Round Live

Watch Seahawks vs Panthers NFC Divisional Round Live

Newton’s greatest value remains in the ground game, where he’s either a runner or a significant decoy who forces linebackers and edge defenders to think more and thus play slower. Here the Panthers are also extremely well designed. Their running game, with its myriad pull-blockers, misdirection fakes and option ghost threats, presents more variables than any other in the league. Consider it strength against strength; the Seahawks are outstanding with gap discipline and have the speed to overcome missteps. With middle linebacker Bobby Wagner healthy (he wasn’t in the first meeting), this matchup is even in every facet.

Seattle offense vs. Carolina defense

The Seahawks passing game has improved in design, and Russell Wilson has responded by playing extremely well from the pocket. And because of his mobility, Seattle’s ground attack remains multipronged, forcing defenders to play slow. For Carolina, it’s often a pure zone-based approach, likely with one high safety on early downs and two high safeties in Tampa 2 on passing downs. The Panthers have improved in man-to-man this season, which they’ll employ in some of their select pressure packages. But given the importance of keeping eyes on Wilson, expect to see almost all zone.

The difference could be Carolina’s linebackers. Thomas Davis and Luke Kuechly have the speed to combat Wilson. Also, they’re heady enough to counter a tactically challenging running game and rangy enough to act on their shallow route reads, which impacts Doug Baldwin from the slot. Wilson has become a more disciplined player down the stretch, but he has hurt Carolina over the years with movement late in games. When the quarterback leans on his movement skills, there becomes a fine line between smart and sloppy offensive play. Overall, the better the defense, the more likely the sandlot plays are to be sloppy. But of course, the Vikings learned something on the Tyler Lockett catch, which came after the fumbled snap, that set up Seattle’s first touchdown last Sunday: with Wilson a sloppy play can still yield good results.

Watch Seahawks vs Panthers NFC Divisional Round Live

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