Panthers will keep it close but can they win?

The Seahawks are heavy favorites in the NFL Divisional Round at home against the Carolina Panthers, but history suggests this will be a hard fought game that could go either way. What do the Panthers need to do to advance to the NFC Championship game?

This game will feature two of the hottest teams in football. The Seattle Seahawks are on a six game winning streak and the Carolina Panthers come in on a five game streak. After starting the season 3-8-1, the Panthers rode a dominant defense and a healthy Jonathan Stewart to an impressive late season run.

Entering week 7, the Panthers defense was 27th in the league, but entering the playoffs? 10th! Over the past five games Carolina has allowed 11.8 points per game. The Arizona Cardinals had no chance last week, but the Panthers held the Saints to 10 points and the Falcons to 3 points (both away games) to make the playoffs. Over the last five games, they held opposing running backs to 83.4 yards per game, which over the course of the whole season would have ranked 4th. This is an important stat because the focus this weekend will be stopping Marshawn Lynch.

Give Ron Rivera a lot of credit for Carolina’s incredible turnaround. After a slow start Rivera realized he needed a younger, faster defense and plugged three rookies into the starting lineup: fifth round cornerback Bene Benwikere, fourth round free safety Tre Boston, and undrafted linebacker Adarius Glanton. With Luke Kuechly in the middle, and younger players stepping up, this could be the best defense in the playoffs behind only the Seahawks. As discussed below, the Panthers defense has been successful in recent seasons against the Seattle offense.

Over the past five games Jonathan Stewart has averaged 104.8 yards per game and was 2nd to only DeMarco Murray for the month of December in rushing yards. Finally healthy, Stewart has taken the reins of the offense with 20+ carries in four of the past five games - after not hitting 20 the whole season. If Stewart can run the ball at a decent clip, it will take pressure off of Cam Newton to attack the best pass defense in football.

It’s easy to write off the Panthers, but they’ve played the Seahawks closer than any other team in football over the last three years:

2014 Season: Week 7 Seahawks win 13-9

After 55:23 of game time, the Panthers were up 9-6 in a defensive battle. Russell Wilson then led his team on a 9 play, 80 yards drive, in 3:50 to pull out the victory. This game was a draw until that drive, with Carolina failing to convert critical opportunities. Early in the game the Panthers reached the red-zone three times and came away with two field goals. One possession ended with a drop in the end-zone and another drive ended with a lost fumble on an exchange.

2013 Season: Week 1 Seahawks win 12-7

Going into the 4th quarter the Panthers led 7-6. The Seahawks only managed two field goals until Jermaine Kearse beat Josh Thomas down the right sideline for 10:13 left. The Panthers stopped the two-point conversion which gave them a chance to win the football game with a touchdown. However, Earl Thomas stripped DeAngelo Williams and Seattle recovered on their own 8 yard line with 5:25 left.

2012 Season: Week 5 Seahawks win 16-12

Down 16-12 in the 4th quarter, Cam Newton drove the Panthers down to the 1 yard line, but was unable to convert, throwing an incomplete pass on 4th and goal with 3:47 left. They had another chance when they got the ball with 54 seconds left on their own 31, but Newton was sacked and stripped of the ball that the Seahawks recovered to end the game. The Seahawks gained the lead after Russell Wilson threw a touchdown to Golden Tate with 35 seconds left in the 3rd quarter.

Keys to Victory:

1. Carolina needs to avoid costly turnovers. The Panthers can stop Seattle’s offense consistently, but they can’t give them a short field. A perfect example is what happened against the Cardinals. They fumbled on a punt return giving the Cardinals the ball on the 30, and an interception by Newton later gave them the ball at the 17. Without these mistakes, the Cardinals would have been shutout. The Seahawks avoid turnovers better than any team in the NFL. If the Panthers limit their own, this game will come down to the 4th quarter once again.

2. Don’t settle for field goals when the opportunity presents itself. It’s easier said than done against the Seahawks defense, but Ron Rivera cannot be conservative in Seattle territory. Based on the previous matchups, two touchdowns will win this game. Field position is obviously important, but if the Panthers get a Chance Early, they need to take it. The Seahawks aren’t built to pass the ball and catch up. It will take them out of their comfort zone and allow the Panthers to stay committed to their strong run game. Although the Seahawks ranked 3rd in the NFL, allowing 81.5 yards per game, their defense is susceptible to good run offenses. In the game earlier this year, the Panthers rushed for 114 yards. Against the Cowboys, Chiefs, and 49ers the Seahawks gave up 162, 190, and 140 yards on the ground.

3. Get Cam Newton into a rhythm. In those three games against the Seahawks, Newton only threw for one touchdown and averaged 145.7 passing yards. On the ground he totaled 104 yards on 24 carries for a 4.3 yard average, and his career average is 5.5. The Panthers have been careful with Newton after offseason ankle surgery and his car accident, but they need to unleash him. No limits on the playbook, and let him make plays with his legs. They will pay him a lot of money in the off season, and this is where Cam Newton needs to earn it.

The Seahawks are an almost unbeatable team at home and are playing well, but don’t count the Panthers out. This will be the most physical, low-scoring game of the weekend and both teams will have chances to win at the end. Russell Wilson has already proven himself, but the question is; will Cam Newton step up?

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