The postseason is about to begin for the Panthers this Sunday at 1 p.m. ET.
After getting a week of rest in thanks to a 15-1 season which produced a first round by and homefield advantage, this Carolina team is gearing up to face off with their heated conference rival Seattle Seahawks.
These two franchises have been involved in quite a few battles with each other over the last few seasons and once again find themselves facing off in the NFC Divisional Round. Only this time, it’s the Panthers who hold the homefield edge.
With storyline after storyline coming out of this matchup, let’s take a look at the top three things to watch for in the Panthers’ first playoff game of the season.
The ultimate goal during Carolina’s regular season was to secure a first round bye and homefield advantage in the playoffs, yet even with accomplishing that, few if any really believe that the Panthers have a true advantage over Seattle in Charlotte. Yet the stats (and an abundance of Panther fans) would beg to differ. In what was a tremendous 2015 campaign for Carolina, they flourished both at home as well as on the road. On offense the numbers are quite similar. They average just about three points more at home than on the road with 392.4-yards per game at home as opposed to 341.6 per game on the road. But flip to the defensive side of the ball and a much greater advantage is pictured.
The Panthers give up almost seven fewer points at home than on the road; one whole touchdown less. The other aspect of homefield advantage that few take into account is the atmosphere in Bank of America Stadium and the confidence that this team plays with at home. Some of Carolina’s biggest performances have come in front of their home crowd, most notably their last three home games where they outscored opponents 120-26. With the Charlotte crowd behind them, this Panthers team plays with a different level of confidence and showmanship and truly has an advantage.
Carolina-Seattle Matchup Evolution
The conference rivalry between these two has heated up in the past several seasons and will only become greater after this playoff matchup. The Seahawks had the edge in the first four meetings by a hair but in Week 6, the tables turned and Carolina finally got over the hump and defeated them in Seattle. Now with the Panthers much improved, another intense battle should be expected. Traditionally, these games have become defensive struggles won by one big play. Week 6 saw what this matchup could soon become though and with quarterbacks Cam Newton and Russell Wilson developing as pocket passers, this could evolve from defensive grind to offensive shootout.
In the last seven weeks of the season, these two quarterbacks have nearly identical stat lines and clearly dominated the leagues quarterback play. Not only is the improvement of these offenses key to the possible shift but also the defensive play. Seattle’s defense is still one of the NFL’s most intimidating but they don’t look nearly as scary as in past seasons while Carolina’s is loaded with elite players but is certainly susceptible to the big play. Playing each other so frequently means that there is little that these teams can hide from each other and it’ll truly test which team is better and cooler under pressure.
Olsen & Ginn: X-Factors
The Panthers defense will need to be on top of their game to hold Wilson and the Seahawks offense down but the most important thing for Carolina is producing on offense and the two biggest x-factors need must show up. The Panthers offense centers around Newton and Jonathan Stewart in the run game but going up against a top ranked rushing defense of Seattle, they’ll need production in bunches from the receivers. Newton has helped to turn this offense into a pass-happy one when it needs to be and has shown the ability to march his team down the field with solid throws into tight windows to number of weapons. Greg Olsen and Ted Ginn Jr. are his two most trusted though and figure to be the key players for Carolina.
In their Week 6 matchup with Seattle, Ginn was a non-factor catching just one pass for 18-yards while Olsen found himself on the opposite end of the spectrum as the primary-factor catching seven passes for 131-yards and the game winning score. With the Seahawks having trouble this season covering tight ends, it’s expected that Olsen, as usual, will be the go-to guy who is force-fed the ball whenever possible. But with the likelihood of double coverage on the Panthers’ tight end, Ginn should find himself open and will need to capitalize on the targets that come his way. As a receiver that can stretch the field, Ginn’s ability as a deep threat will also be essential against a not-so-fast Seattle secondary. It may be the obvious answer but, nonetheless, the production from these two could very well decide this matchup.