The lasting image of the Seahawks Week Six loss to the Carolina Panthers was Seattle's All-Pro safeties Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas looking at each other in utter confusion while Greg Olsen and his teammates celebrated their game-winning score.
The breakdown in coverage all but handed Olsen and Cam Newton the 26-yard touchdown, culminating Carolina's dramatic come-from-behind 27-23 victory.
It leaves Olsen as an obvious focus of Seattle's defensive game-planning for Sunday's divisional round re-match and one five reasons why the Seahawks appear ripe to spoil the Panthers' post-season dreams.
5. Panthers won't find Olsen as easily on Sunday
As noted in Three Key Matchups, Olsen beat outside linebacker Kevin Pierre-Louis (who was making his first career start) as often in Week Six as he did the Legion of Boom, hauling in seven passes (on 11 targets) for 131 yards and the score. With K.J. Wright returning to his customary position this time around, the Seahawks are much better prepared for covering the tight end. Wright's awareness, length and closing speed make him one of the NFL's better coverage linebackers - something that has been proven in the past against Carolina. With White and Chancellor primarily drawing the coverage of Olsen in the past, the Seahawks held him to an average of just three catches for 41.5 yards (and zero touchdowns) the four games prior to the October meltdown. All four of those games, of course, were Seattle wins.
4. Wagner's return solidifies run defense
Lost a bit in the Olsen hype-fest has been the fact that Seattle was beaten up the middle in the running game every bit as much as the passing game in Week Six, surrendering 135 yards and three touchdowns on the ground, including 78 yards and two scores to Panthers running back Jonathan Stewart. The healthy return of Bobby Wagner (who missed the game in October due to strained pectoral muscle), however, makes Seattle much more formidable up front. Instinctive, powerful and fast to the edges, Wagner will certainly be motivated to perform well with the only other middle linebacker in NFL history to earn a richer contract - Luke Kuechly - also likely to play a starring role in Sunday's game.
3. Carolina's corners are beaten up and vulnerable
Josh Norman has enjoyed a spectacular season for the Panthers but with Bene Benwikere and Charles Tillman out of this game with injuries, Carolina has holes in the secondary to exploit. The Panthers will be "starting" veterans Cortland Finnegan and Robert McClain, each of whom were street free agents when Carolina visited Seattle in October. Neither, frankly, possesses the agility or straight-line speed to match up with Seattle's speedy playmakers at receiver, especially Doug Baldwin and Tyler Lockett. At 5-9, 195 pounds, McClain could also struggle with the jump balls which Lockett and Jermaine Kearse have enjoyed such great success with this season. The Seahawks largely avoided Norman's side last time, with Russell Wilson throwing just two passes in his direction (both quick screens), putting Finnegan and McClain (and Carolina's less-experienced corners behind them) very much in the cross-hairs.
2. Seattle owns a significant special teams advantage
Last week's miss of a 27-yard field goal by Minnesota Vikings kicker Blair Walsh was obviously critical to the Seahawks advancing but winning on special teams has been nothing for Seattle this season. Lockett was the only one to earn Pro Bowl honors but placekicker Steven Hauschka and punter Jon Ryan also enjoyed terrific seasons. No one has been better in the postseason than Hauschka, who has never missed a kick in the playoffs (14-for-14 on field goals, 20-for-20 on PATs). One of the few relative weaknesses this season for the 15-1 Panthers, however, has been their not-so-special teams. The Panthers have surrendered a touchdown off a punt return and kick return this season. Meanwhile, the team has shown a lack of playmaking ability on their own returns, with a 37-yarder from Ted Ginn Jr. ranking as their most explosive play on punt or kick returns this season. Kicker Graham Gano has had four field goals blocked this season and 12 since 2010.
1. Wilson's poise gives him advantage over the more gifted Newton
Regardless of what you may think about his self-promoting style, Newton has been the NFL's Most Valuable Player this season. Now in his fifth year, he's throwing the ball with much greater awareness and accuracy, tossing a career high 35 touchdowns (while watching his interceptions drop from 12 to 10) while also leading the Panthers with another 10 scores on the ground. Simply bigger, stronger and faster than most, he really does play like Superman, at times. A disproportionate number of his Clark Kent moments, however, have come when the lights shined brightest, dating back to college and certainly extending into the NFL's post-season. Wilson, on the other hand, has shown remarkable composure throughout his NFL career, including leading Seattle back to the playoffs after the club began the season just 2-4. With the return of Marshawn Lynch drawing Carolina's safeties closer to the box, there should be running and passing lanes for Seattle's dual-threat quarterback to do some superhero work of his own on Sunday.