Slowing down Greg Olsen, Kawann Short key to Seahawks advancing past Panthers

Russell Wilson vs. Cam Newton? Let's dig a little deeper than the MVP candidates, shall we?

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 Cam Newton 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.

Matchup No. 1:  Seahawks OLB K.J. WrightKam Chancellor vs. Panthers TE Greg Olsen

Olsen was the unquestioned star in Carolina's Week Six win in Seattle, hauling in seven passes for 131 yards and the game-winning 32-yard touchdown. The two-time reigning Pro Bowler finished with nearly twice as many receptions as Carolina's next two pass-catchers - wide receivers Ted Ginn, Jr. and Jerricho Cotchery - leading Seahawks defensive coordinator Kris Richard to note Thursday that Newton "throws it to [Olsen] as much as he possibly can. Whether he's covered or not, the ball is going there."

With Bobby Wagner out in Week Six, Wright slid inside to middle linebacker, giving Kevin Pierre-Louis the start outside - the first of his career. The Panthers took full advantage of KPL's inexperience (and Chancellor only in his fourth game back from an extended holdout) to target Olsen 11 times.

Wright's length, awareness and closing speed make him one of the NFL's better coverage linebackers. His return to the outside - along with Chancellor's knack for big plays in the playoffs - have the Seahawks much better prepared to handle the Newton-Olsen challenge.

Matchup No. 2: Seahawks WRs Doug BaldwinTyler Lockett vs. Panthers CB Cortland Finnegan

An ugly spat with the NY Giants Odell Beckham Jr. won't keep some NFL team from handsomely rewarding Josh Norman when his contract runs out after the season. He's starred as a lockdown corner for Carolina, scoring two touchdowns on his seven takeaways, including four interceptions. The Panthers' loss of their top two corners opposite him - Bene' Benwikere and Charles Tillman - however, is significant with the former Titans, Rams, and Dolphins veteran, Finnegan on deck.

The 5-10, 190 pound Finnegan isn't as athletic as he once was in but he remains highly aggressive in his 10th NFL season and has historically been one of the NFL's best at getting into the head of opposing receivers. Mental (and physical) toughness has long proven to be strengths for Baldwin and Lockett but make no mistake, they'll be challenged by Carolina's corners on Sunday.

Finnegan will attempt to knock Seattle's receivers off their routes to ruin the timing with Wilson. He does a nice job of fighting through blocks on screens and is quick to recognize the quick arrow routes that Baldwin has used to such great effectiveness over the second half of the season, as well. He's savvy, anticipating double-moves but could struggle with Baldwin's quick change of direction and lacks the makeup speed at this point in his career to keep up with Lockett on the outside.

If Wilson has time, there will be openings in Carolina's secondary to exploit. 

Matchup No. 3: Seahawks LG Justin Britt, OC Patrick Lewis vs. Panthers DT Kawann Short

Pac-12 fans may be more familiar with former Utah Utes standout Star Lotulelei but Wilson and Marshawn Lynch have been forced to meet Short on far too many occasions, from a Seahawks' perspective. Short certainly stood tall Week Six in Seattle, recording six tackles, including two sacks. Further, Short stood out in last year's Divisional Round, as well, registering four tackles despite Lotulelei being out with an injury.

Short has grown into a verifiable superstar in his third season out of Purdue, more than tripling last year's previous career-high of 3.5 sacks to record 11 over the regular season, earning his first Pro Bowl nod. Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman predicted Short's quick ascension shortly after his club selected him, calling the former No. 44 overall pick the "most natural pass rusher of all the defensive tackles in the [2013] draft."

Short boasts a lethal combination of foot and hand quickness, making him a natural penetrator and perfect rush complement to the stronger Lotulelei. Unfortunately for Seattle, this is precisely type of athletic defensive tackle that has plagued Britt in the past.

The Panthers will be counting on Short to give Britt problems and had success in Week Six sending extra defenders on blitzes, which both Lewis and Drew Nowak struggled with. With an obvious exception against Aaron Donald, Lewis has been a solidifying force in the middle since taking over as the starting center following Seattle's Week Nine bye.

Lewis will be challenged this week with Carolina's varied looks and he'll need to be quick to slide left to help get an extra hat on Short to keep the Panthers pass rush and boisterous crowd from creating havoc in Seattle's backfield. Of course, things would be a lot easier on Britt, Lewis and the rest of Seattle's offense if Luke Kuechly and the Panthers' defense was forced to worry about Lynch, as well.

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