The Carolina Panthers (15-1) nearly completed a perfect season, dominated both sides of the ball, saw quarterback Cam Newton elevate his game to an MVP level, owned six spots on the All-Pro team, and yet they’ll still have to go through the two-time defending NFC champion Seattle Seahawks (11-6) to validate their incredible season.
The two squads meet in Sunday’s NFC Divisional Round matchup for a shot at the conference title game, and the pressure falls squarely on Newton and the Panthers as anything short of a Super Bowl appearance will be considered a failure.
Carolina enters the matchup rested as the NFC’s top seed and will play postseason host for the second straight year, while hoping to avenge its 31-17 loss to Seattle in last year’s divisional round. With Newton throwing two scores and an equal number of interceptions, the Panthers never led but kept the matchup close until surrendering 17 points in the fourth quarter.
But this season’s iteration of both Newton and the Panthers are far stronger. Carolina finished the regular season with the NFL’s highest scoring offense (31.3 points per game), 10 points better than last year, while Newton cracked new career-highs with 35 touchdown passes and 10 interceptions for a 99.4 passer rating.
The Panthers defense, powered by first-team All-Pro linebacker Luke Kuechly and cornerback Josh Norman, also improved from 23.4 points and 339.8 yards allowed per contest to 19.3 points and 322.9 yards, both sixth-best in the NFL. The pass rush also upped its sack total with 44 to finish sixth in the league thanks to defensive tackle Kawann Short’s 11 takedowns.
Newton and Carolina already have the formula to beat Seattle and quarterback Russell Wilson, claiming a 27-23 comeback victory in Week 6 this season. The presumed MVP did fire off two interceptions and Carolina fell behind by 13 points midway through the third quarter, but Newton led two fourth-quarter scoring drives capped by running back Johnathan Stewart’s one-yard touchdown run and tight end Greg Olsen pulling down a 26-yard strike with 32 seconds remaining for the win.
Yet now it’s the postseason, and the Seahawks once again proved they know how to pull out an ugly victory. Seattle lost the possession battle by nearly five minutes, converted only five of 14 third downs, was flagged six times for a loss of 65 yards, and couldn’t find the end zone until Wilson hit receiver Doug Baldwin with a three-yard pass with 11:37 remaining, and it still needed Minnesota kicker Blair Walsh to shank a 27-yard field goal just before time expired for a 10-9 win.
Wilson went 13-for-25 for 142 yards, one touchdown, and one interception, while running back Christine Michael led the way with 70 yards on 21 attempts against the Vikings after Marshawn Lynch was a late scratch.
Later it was revealed Lynch, who has played an important role in Seattle’s last two Super Bowl runs, ruled himself out from the game. He has yet to play since undergoing abdominal surgery on Nov. 25 and last appeared in Week 10’s loss to Arizona. Lynch’s status against the Panthers remains unclear.
Betting Odds: Carolina -3
Over/Under: 44 points
Prediction: Carolina over Seattle, 27-20