As much as any other professional sport, the NFL is a team game. No one player can be successful without the assistance of others. That said, individual matchups can and do determine winners and losers on a weekly basis.
Sure, superstars Russell Wilson and Marshawn Lynch could be called keys in every game but let's dig deeper. The goal here is to identify three critical one-on-one matchups (that few others are talking about) which will likely determine whether or not the Seahawks emerge victorious.
With all due respect to Ted Ginn Jr., Jerricho Cotchery and the rest of Carolina's wide receivers (including former Seahawk Kevin Norwood), the Panthers' obvious top target is Olsen. Containing him should make Carolina's offense one-dimensional The problem is, of course, that Olsen is a terrific player, consistently winning with sharp route-running, fluidity and soft hands. The issue is exacerbated with Seattle's struggles containing tight ends this season. The Seahawks have allowed four touchdowns to tight ends over its first five games - a number that is striking given that the club didn't allow an offensive touchdown to either the Chicago Bears or Detroit Lions.
Normally, the responsibility of covering Olsen would like mostly with K.J. Wright and Chancellor but with middle linebacker Bobby Wagner highly questionable to play in this contest, Wright is likely to move inside, making Pierre-Louis a starter for the first time in his NFL career.
Pierre-Louis possesses the speed and agility to handle this role but at just 6-foot, 236 pounds, he's much smaller than the 6-5, 253 pound Olsen. Chancellor will, of course, also be asked to cover Carolina's tight end and his physicality and size (6-3, 232) will be helpful in slowing Olsen down. Given Cam Newton's steady development as a passer, however, simply locking one defender on Olsen might not be the wisest strategy.
Matchup No. 2: Seahawks DE Cliff Avril vs. Panthers LT Michael Oher
Depending on the down and distance, the Seahawks have used Avril, Michael Bennett, Frank Clark, Bruce Irvin and Cassius Marsh at right defensive end. The matchup that may favor Seattle the most Sunday is Avril, whose initial burst should give Oher trouble.
Though his play has declined since he initially stood out as a rookie right tackle for the Baltimore Ravens, Carolina surprisingly signed Oher to man the all-important left tackle role during the off-season. To the surprise of few, he's struggled with this transition. Oher is powerful and tough, but he's not especially agile in pass protection and historically has struggled with speed rushers on the road. Avril, meanwhile, is Seattle's quickest edge rusher and he'll have the advantage of the boisterous 12s to aid him.
Avril should be able to supply pressure on Newton but equally important may be the veteran defensive end maintaining his gap integrity. Avril is generally Seattle's most reliable defensive end in this regard, rarely losing containing responsibilities while blinding rushing the passer. Against a runner as gifted as Newton, it is just as important to keep him penned in the pocket as supplying the initial pressure.
Matchup No. 3: Seahawks RG J.R. Sweezy / C Drew Nowak vs. Panthers DT Star Lotulelei
Seahawks fans may recall fondly last year's 31-17 Division Round home victory against these same Panthers a year ago. What fans may have forgotten, however, is just how close this game was until Chancellor returned an interception 90 yards in the fourth quarter. The Seahawks entered the final stanza up just 14-10 in large part because the Panthers held Marshawn Lynch to only 59 rushing yards over the entire game - and that was Carolina's best run-stuffer, Lotulelei, out with a fracture foot.
Lotuleli has recorded just two tackles thus far in 2015 but don't let this lack of production fool you - he remains a block-eating monster in the middle. The 6-2, 320 pound former Pac-12 defensive lineman of the year boasts the strength and anchor to lock up Sweezy and Nowak, freeing superstar middle linebacker Luke Kuechly to rack up tackles.
Though the Seahawks were disappointed with last week's fourth quarter collapse against the Bengals, the offensive line's greatly improved play was an obvious silver lining. The week prior against the Lions, however, was troubling with a "big" part of that being the accuracy of shotgun snaps from Nowak. Some believe that Nowak's issues against the Lions were tied to the size and strength of Detroit's Haloti Ngata, a 6-4, 345 pounder who some scouts compared Lotulelei to when he played at Utah.
If Nowak is, indeed, forced to help Sweezy against Lotulelei the concern isn't just the snaps but how well left guard Justin Britt will be able to handle the quickness of Carolina's "other" defensive tackle Kawann Short, who stood out with four solo tackles in Seattle's playoff win last year.