A year after winning their first Super Bowl in franchise history, the Seattle Seahawks (12-4) are set to defend their title in the 2015 NFL playoffs. They’ll host the Carolina Panthers (7-8-1) in their NFC Divisional Playoff game on Saturday in a rematch from Week 8.
The two teams met at the midway point of the 2014 regular season in a contest that went down to the wire. The Panthers didn’t trail until the visiting Seahawks scored the game-winning touchdown with 47 seconds remaining in regulation. Seattle won, 13-9, starting a streak of nine victories in 10 games.
There are reasons to believe Saturday’s contest will be just as close. Though the game will be played in Seattle this time, Carolina is playing much better football than they were at the time of their first meeting with the Seahawks. The Panthers haven’t lost since November, winning five games in a row, including a victory over the 11-win Arizona Cardinals on Wild Card Weekend.
Carolina took advantage of a team that was forced to start Ryan Lindley at quarterback, allowing just 78 total yards, which set a record for the fewest in NFL playoff history. The Panthers’ defense has been among the best in the league during their winning streak, surrendering an average of 11.8 points per game, and allowing no more than 17 points in any one contest.
It won’t be easy for the Panthers to keep up a similar pace against the Seahawks, who are the hottest team in the entire postseason. As well as Carolina has played, Seattle has been even better. The team ended 2014 with six consecutive victories, including five wins against teams that have a record of .500 or better.
After struggling at points in the first half of the season, Seattle’s defense finally played like the unit that won a championship last year. The Seahawks finished 2014 ranked first in defense, allowing 15.9 points and 267.1 total yards per game. No other team allowed fewer than 300 yards per contest.
While the Panthers have greatly improved upon their 3-8-1 start, they haven’t been tested against a team that’s nearly as good as the defending champs. Their final four regular-season wins came against losing teams, and the Cardinals were playing like one of the worst teams in football by the time they reached the postseason, losing four of their last six games.
The Panthers’ offense has yet to prove that it can move the ball with consistent success against such a good defense. Carolina was no better than average when it came to scoring points in the regular season, ranking 19th with 21.2 points per game. The team struggled mightily when facing stiff competition, averaging 15 points per game in their four matchups with top 10 scoring defenses.
Cam Newton didn't play particularly well in the regular season, ranking 26th in passer rating (82.1), 29th in completion percentage (58.5), 21st in passing yards and tied for 19th in passing touchdowns (18). Even in last weekend’s win, Newton wasn’t particularly impressive, completing 18 of 32 passes for 198 yards, two scores and an interception.
Seattle’s “Legion of Boom” has been terrific during their winning streak, allowing two passing touchdowns and recording seven interceptions. Richard Sherman leads the team with four picks.
Just as Carolina’s offense has stalled against good defenses, the team’s defense has played poorly against the best offenses in football. In four games against scoring offenses that rank in the top eight, the Panthers never allowed less than 37 points in a game.
Scoring 24.6 points per game, Seattle ranks 10th in the NFL. Russell Wilson and Marshawn Lynch have combined to give the Seahawks the No.1 rushing attack in the NFL, and Wilson’s performance in the passing game has improved in the latter part of the season. In his last seven games, the quarterback has thrown for nine scores and two interceptions.
Saturday’s rematch is expected to be one-sided, with the Panthers getting 11 points at Las Vegas casinos, and the over/under set at 40 points. The Seahawks have covered the spread in every game since Week 12.
Prediction: Seattle over Carolina, 38-17