The Carolina Panthers had the best regular season of any NFL team in 2015, and they might be on their way to their first Super Bowl appearance in 12 years. After going 15-1 and earning a first-round bye as the No.1 seed, Carolina is guaranteed to host their first 2016 playoff game against a team they’ve already defeated this season.
Of the four NFC teams playing on Wild Card Weekend, the Minnesota Vikings are the only team that Carolina has no chance of facing. If the Seattle Seahawks defeat Minnesota on Sunday afternoon, they will visit Carolina next week. If Minnesota gets the victory, the winner of Sunday’s contest between the Green Bay Packers and Washington Redskins will travel to Carolina in the divisional round.
Below is a look at Carolina’s potential opponents in the second round of the playoffs.
Seattle didn’t start the season looking like back-to-back NFC champions, but this year’s team might be better than the 2013 and 2014 Seahawks that reached the Super Bowl. The “Legion of Boom” struggled in the early part of the year, but Seattle’s defense is back to being the best in football, allowing a league-low 17.3 points per game. What might make the Seahawks better than ever is the play of Russell Wilson. He finished the regular season with the NFL's No.1 passer rating, and he’s thrown for 24 touchdowns and one interception over the last seven weeks.
The Seahawks have six wins over that seven week stretch, but they are tied with the most losses of any NFC playoff team with six defeats. One of those losses came in Week 6 when the Panthers won in Seattle, 27-23. The Seahawks blew a nine-point lead with less than four minutes remaining in the fourth quarter. Marshawn Lynch ran for 54 yards and a touchdown in that game, but there’s no guarantee he’ll play in the second round, considering he’s been ruled out of Sunday’s contest.
Green Bay Packers
Green Bay’s season has been the complete opposite of Seattle’s. Both teams went 10-6, but while the Seahawks started off slow and finished the regular season strong, the Packers haven’t looked like a legitimate Super Bowl contender since their 6-0 start.
The Packers are dangerous because they are led by arguably the NFL’s best quarterback of the last few seasons. Aaron Rodgers has a chance to lead the Packers on a deep postseason run, but Green Bay probably won’t get past the first round if he continues to play like he has in recent weeks. His 92.7 passer rating is his lowest since he became Green Bay’s starter in 2008, and he hasn’t thrown for 300 yards since Nov. 15. The Packers rank 23rd in total offense and 15th in total defense, though they do have wins against the Seahawks, Chiefs and Vikings.
Carolina’s Week-9 win over Green Bay solidified them as a top Super Bowl contender. The final score was 37-29, but the Panthers were in control of the entire game, and the Packers needed two late touchdowns to lose by just one score. Cam Newton threw for 297 yards and three touchdowns, and the Packers were limited to 71 rushing yards.
The Redskins are the most surprising playoff team, but they proved over the final four weeks of the regular season that they belong in the postseason. Washington has won four consecutive games, and they are a one-point favorite at home over the Packers.
Playing in a mediocre NFC East, Kirk Cousins put the Redskins on his back in the second half of the year and led them to a division title. The quarterback has thrown at least one touchdown pass in every game, ending the regular season with 27 total scores and three interceptions. Only four teams allowed more total yards than Washington’s defense, though they managed to rank 17th in points allowed. However, Washington has played poorly against good teams, getting blown out in three games against teams with winning records, most notably their contest with Carolina.
The Panthers were dominant against the Redskins, defeating them 44-16 in Week 11. Newton had maybe his best game of the season, completing 21 of 34 passes for 246 yards and five touchdowns. Jonathan Stewart picked up 102 yards on the ground, and Cousins was sacked five times.