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Panthers vs. Seahawks Divisional Round Preview: Crank Up the Defense

Seattle has won three straight against the Panthers. Will they make it four in a row? Or can Carolina's defense make some noise?

Playing a non-division foe for three straight years is rare in NFL circles in the regular season. However, that is exactly what has happened between the Seattle Seahawks and the Carolina Panthers.

The Panthers have failed to use their home field to their advantage in all three contests, losing 16-12 in 2012, 12-7 in their 2013 season debut, and again in Week 8 of the 2014 season by a score of 13-9.

The 2014 game was determined by a nine-play, 80-yard drive that concluded with a game-winning touchdown pass from Russell Wilson to tight end Luke Willson with 47 seconds left.

There were several recurring themes in those games. Most notably, the Seahawks' defense stymying Panthers quarterback Cam Newton both on the ground and in the air. In fact, Newton hasn't passed for more than 171 yards in a single game versus the Seahawks in his career or rushed for more than 42 yards, either. Newton has combined for just one touchdown and one interception in three games.

Wilson hasn't been much better from a rushing perspective and has essentially been a game manager in his three victories in Carolina, other than his 2013 opening week performance with 320 yards passing. Wilson has three passing touchdowns and three interceptions in three games against the Panthers.

Now, the venue shifts to the raucous Century Link Field -- or "The Clink" as it is known here in Seattle. Will the noise continue to come from the defensive side of the ball again?

Will Beast Mode Equal Feast Mode?

The 2014 Seahawks are best known for their ability to run the football, and the potential of center Max Unger's return from a high ankle sprain suffered in Week 11 only figures to help matters. Our Net Expected Points (NEP) metric has the 2014 Seahawks among the best running attacks since 2000, as Wilson's 2014 Rushing NEP of 60.50 trailed only Michael Vick's 2004 Rushing NEP of 68.31, and Marshawn Lynch finished first among all running backs in the category in 2014 with a 27.34 Rushing NEP.

While Lynch hasn't really gotten going against the Panthers' solid linebacking corps in the past (his previously high rushing yards versus Carolina is 85 yards in 2012), Lynch tends to feed off the home crowd and gets into a rhythm earlier in the game at home. This is especially true in the playoffs, as Lynch has eclipsed 100 yards rushing and a touchdown in each of his three playoff games at Century Link Field.

Wilson's splits at home were significantly worse than on the road in 2014. At home, he is more of a game manager who seems to have a hard time getting settled into a rhythm until the second half. To that end, at home, he is a quarterback who relies on Lynch and his defense to win games and the Seahawks went 7-1 at home behind that formula this season. Wilson passed for 1,544 yards with 6 touchdowns and 6 interceptions in Seattle.

On the road, Wilson lit it up, with 1,931 yards passing, 14 touchdowns and only 1 interception. Wilson also had 523 rushing yards on the road and 4 rushing touchdowns away from Seattle. He posted just 326 rushing yards and 2 touchdowns at home.

Can the Panthers Do Enough on Offense to Compete?

To beat the Seahawks, a team that we have ranked first in our power rankings with a 21.4% chance of winning the Super Bowl, the Panthers will have to do better than their lackluster performances on offense in prior meetings with the Seahawks. That will be easier said than done against a team defense that ranks fifth against the run in our Adjusted Defensive Rushing NEP.

For starters, Newton will have to improve on both his mechanics and his decision-making (two turnovers, including a near pick-six) against the Cardinals last week because his defense isn't facing the historically bad Ryan Lindley.

Getting running back Jonathan Stewart going against the Seahawks tough run defense would help ease the burden on Newton. Stewart has rushed for more than 100 yards in three of his last five games, including a 123-yard performance with a touchdown against a Cardinals run defense last week that ended the season ranked 11th, according to our metrics.

Having success in the running game is key to quieting the crowd and also to setting up the passing game against the Seahawks' vaunted secondary, which ranked third in Adjusted Defensive Passing NEP in the regular season. Earlier in the season, the team showed some vulnerability in covering tight ends, and Carolina boasts on of the most consistent ones in the league in Greg Olsen, who finished third among tight ends with a 86.1 Reception NEP.

To beat the Seahawks, Newton will also have to take risks and target the Seahawks' secondary, possibly taking shots at Richard Sherman, who figures to see a good amount of Carolina rookie phenom wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin, who had 4 catches for 94 yards in their earlier matchup, including a 51-yard reception. Sherman and the secondary have been lights-out down the stretch, so this figures to be a huge challenge for Newton and his receivers.

Will the Panthers Linebackers Continue To Dominate?

Linebackers Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis were all over the field in the Arizona game, accounting for 17 tackles and 2 tackles for loss. Down the stretch, they were a key in Carolina's winning the NFC South. They'll have to force turnovers against Wilson and keep contain in the running game to give their offense a chance to make plays, especially now that run-stuffer Star Lotulelei is out with a broken foot.

What Does History Tell Us About This Game?

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