CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera says the Seattle Seahawks are starting to feel a little like a division opponent.
The teams will meet for the sixth time in four years and for the second straight season in the NFC divisional playoffs on Sunday. The Seahawks have won four of the previous five matchups, including a 31-17 playoff victory last year in Seattle.
But this time it’s a little different.
Not only will the game be played in Charlotte, where the top-seeded Panthers (15-1) have won 11 straight, but the Seahawks face a Carolina team that’s more confident and battled-tested.
Some of that stems from Carolina’s 27-23 win over the two-time defending NFC champions in Week 6 when Cam Newton connected on a 26-yard touchdown pass to tight end Greg Olsen with 32 seconds left.
The Panthers say that win helped jumpstart their 14-0 start this season and gave them confidence they could beat the best.
“It was just a matter of getting over that hump,” said cornerback Josh Norman.
It led Panthers safety Roman Harper to declare this week: “We are the better team.”
In many ways, the Seahawks and Panthers are mirror images of one another, which may help explain why the last five games have come down to the wire.
They both have dynamic quarterbacks who can make plays with their arms and their feet; strong running games led by powerful, bruising backs; and defenses that excel at keeping the opposition out of the end zone.
But the most intriguing matchup may be Carolina’s No. 1 scoring offense against Seattle’s defense, which has allowed the fewest points in the league.
Newton became the first QB in league history to throw for 35 touchdown passes and run for 10 scores in a season. He’ll face a defense loaded with playmakers.
“This is the most diversified offense that we see, and the dynamics of what Cam is able to do and the way that they’re willing to run with him makes this a really difficult offense to prepare for,” Seattle coach Pete Carroll said. “You’ve seen everybody have trouble with it all year long, so we’ll see if we can keep it down and try to keep the score within reach and see if we have a chance.”
Things to watch in the Seahawks-Panthers playoff game:
NOW BOARDING: After last week’s sudden turn when Marshawn Lynch ended up not making the trip to Minnesota, all indications are “Beast Mode” will be back against the Panthers. If Lynch plays, it will be his first action since Week 10 against Arizona prior to having abdominal surgery. Lynch was a full participant in practice for the second straight week.
Carolina did an adequate job slowing down Lynch in the first meeting, holding him to 54 yards on 17 carries and no run longer than 17 yards. In seven career games versus Carolina as a member of the Seahawks, Lynch has never rushed for more than 89 yards.
STEWART’S CONDITIONING: Meanwhile, Panthers running back Jonathan Stewart makes his return after missing the last three games with a foot injury. Coach Ron Rivera said Stewart’s foot is not a problem, but is a little concerned over his conditioning. Stewart, who averaged 18.6 carries per game in 13 games, said he’ll be just fine and will do “whatever it takes” to be effective.
STUNNING SUNDAYS: The Seahawks have done their fans little favor by playing cardiac playoff games on Sundays. Since the 2012 season, the Seahawks have played seven postseason games on Sundays. Five have been decided in the closing seconds, including last Sunday’s victory over Minnesota. That stretch includes two NFC championship game victories and, of course, last season’s Super Bowl loss to New England.
The only two Sunday games during the stretch that didn’t cause extra stress for Seattle fans: the 2012 divisional playoff win over Washington, and the Super Bowl blowout victory over Denver in February 2014.
DEFENSIVE END DROUGHT: The Panthers finished with 44 sacks, sixth best in the league, but haven’t gotten much production from their starting veteran defensive ends Charles Johnson and Jared Allen. They have combined for just three sacks this season. Panthers coach Ron Rivera said he’s more concerned about his defensive ends containing Russell Wilson this week than sacking him.
“The thing we’ve got to understand is that if you’ve got to contain or you’ve got the outside rush, you’ve got to make sure you’re in position to keep him on your inside,” Rivera said. “You can’t allow a guy like that to escape.”
WAGNER PLAYING: Seahawks middle linebacker Bobby Wagner didn’t play in the first meeting with Carolina and he could be a major factor Sunday. It was only game Wagner missed this season. He finished the season with 114 tackles and he gives Seattle another playmaker on defense.