Nearly everyone I spoke with today, including my own son, seems to be concerned about this Panthers game. I get it. They are 15-1. The Seahawks barely got by a lesser Vikings squad, and scored just 10 points. Simple logic would seem to heavily favor the Panthers. Thankfully, football logic is far more nuanced than that. Before any of you throw in the towel too soon, consider these 10 facts.
1. The Seahawks have played the Panthers five times in the last four years, and are 4-1 in those games
These two teams have largely been made up of the same players over the past four years, and have clashed almost as often as division foes during that time. More relevant than any game the Panthers played against the rest of the NFL, or the game the Seahawks just played against the Vikings, is how these two teams have fared when facing each other. Seattle has been the Panthers’ nemesis.
2. Carolina has played just 4 teams with winning records this year, and two of those teams were 9-7 (Houston, Washington)
Amassing 15 wins against any level of NFL competition is a terrific accomplishment. Still, the Panthers played the fourth-weakest schedule in the league this year, per TeamRankings.com. Give Seattle six games against the Falcons, Saints, and Bucs instead of the Cardinals, Rams and 49ers, and make Carolina play in the NFC West, and the two teams records would probably be identical. The best teams the Panthers played this year were the Seahawks, Packers, Texans and Redskins. Facing that kind of schedule and then having to face a team as talented and proven as the Seattle in the playoffs is going to be a little playing catch with your dad, and then having Randy Johnson take his place.
3. The Seahawks were without Bobby Wagner, Jordan Hill, Frank Clark, Jeremy Lane, Marcus Burley, and Brock Coyle in the first game
The team that will travel to Carolina will be different than the team the Panthers faced in October. Six players, including All-Pro linebacker Bobby Wagner and starting corner Jeremy Lane, did not play against the Panthers in the last game. K.J. Wright was forced to play out of position at middle linebacker, and Kevin Pierre-Loius started at Wright’s customary weakside spot. How well did that go? Pierre-Louis did not get more than 13 snaps in a game the rest of the year, including games when other starting linebackers were hurt. The team turned to Mike Morgan instead. Marcus Burley is probably the least impactful of the players who were absent before, and he is still a great special teams player and sometimes nickel corner. Brock Coyle is such a key special teams player that the team used their injured reserve with designation to return later slot on him this year.
4. Bruce Irvin has 7 sacks in 4 career games against Cam Newton and the Panthers, including 2 sacks this year
Over 25% of Bruce Irvin’s career sacks have come against Cam Newton. In fact, he has had at least 2.0 sacks in every game against Carolina except for the playoff game last year when he had just one.
5. Cary Williams does not play for Seattle anymore
Go back and watch the fourth quarter of the Panthers comeback against Seattle. Newton wisely found a weakness in the defense with the name “Williams” on his jersey, and targeted him relentlessly. That crack in the defensive foundation has been patched and sealed. Since removing Cary Williams from the team, the Seahawks have allowed just a 64.6 passer rating to opposing QBs after allowing 87.4 before.
6. The Panthers are missing two of their top three CBs
Charles Tillman and Bene Benwikere are both out for the rest of the year due to injury. Tillman was lost in the very last game of the season and Benwikere was lost in mid-December. Cortland Finnegan and Robert McClain step in. Both were street free agents a few weeks ago. The chances for communication breakdowns in the secondary are increased when adding this many new players to the mix this late in the season.
7. Carolina has played only one game this year where they failed to force a turnover, and that was against Seattle
The Panthers are tops in the league in turnover differential, powered largely by their sizable lead in takeaways. They have done a terrific job at taking the ball from opponents and giving their offense a short field, which has led to many of their blowouts. Seattle is among the best in the league at protecting the ball, and was the only team to keep the Panthers from feasting on turnovers this year.
8. Cam Newton’s passer rating after 3 quarters in the first game was 15.5
The man who is almost certain to win the MVP trophy was 8-21 (38%) for 107 yards 0 TD and 2 INT through three quarters of the first game against the Seahawks. His career passer rating against Seattle is just 71.5, with more interception (5) than touchdowns (4). Yes, he had a great fourth quarter picking on Williams, but it seems generous to assume that one quarter is a better predictor of what we will see on Sunday than his other 19 quarters against the Seahawks.
9. The Panthers have only trailed one team at halftime, and at the end of three quarters this season: the Seahawks
New Orleans, and what some statistics show was the worst defense in the history of football, led the Panthers at halftime and ultimately lost 41-38. Atlanta led the Panthers after three quarters, and become the only team to beat them. Seattle was the only team to lead all the way until the fourth quarter. In fact, they led until just a few seconds remained on the clock.
10. Carolina has faced just one Top 5 defense and one Top 5 offense: the Seahawks
The last Top 10 offenses to face the Panthers defense were the Giants and the Saints. The Giants scored 35 points while gaining 406 yards, and the Saints scored 38 points and totalled 334 yards. The last Top 5 offense the Seahawks played scored 6 points and gained 232 yards.