Seattle Seahawks at Carolina Panthers (-3, 44 o/u)
A dream year for the Carolina Panthers (15-1, 8-0 home) had just one misstep during the regular season, a 20-13 loss to Atlanta in Week 15. However, there is nothing dreamy about their path to the Super Bowl. Carolina will need to beat the defending conference champion Seattle Seahawks (11-6, 6-3 road) this weekend (Sunday, 1:05 p.m. Eastern), and likely Arizona in the NFC Championship Game.
The Seahawks are lucky to be playing at this stage, needing a missed chip-shot field goal on Wild Card Weekend just to make the Divisional Playoffs. But Blair Walsh came through, hooking a 27-yard attempt wide left, giving Seattle a 10-9 win over the Vikings in frigid Minnesota.
Give some credit to the Seahawks for the way they battled, though. Playing in one of the coldest games in NFL history, Seattle fell behind 9-0, but managed ten fourth-quarter points to give them the lead late.
Seattle started the season dismally (by their standards), going 2-4 in the first six and losing their first four against teams that made the playoffs. However, they beat the Steelers, Vikings, and Cardinals down the stretch. Betting-wise, the Seahawks are 8-8-1 against the spread and 4-4-1 on the road.
The Seahawks strength on offense was their running game, but Pro Bowl tailback Marshawn Lynch declared himself unavailable for the game against Minnesota last week, and Thomas Rawls is out with an injury. Lynch’s health remains a question mark heading into this weekend.
Quarterback Russell Wilson has sprinted for 553 yards this year, and he had his best year passing too. That said, Seattle is a below-average passing offense. Primarily the running game fueled an average of 26.4 points scored a game, fourth in the NFL.
Seattle’s defense has been their bread and butter for the last several seasons, and they were again the top scoring defense in the NFL this year, allowing only 17.3 points a game. That is particularly impressive considering they yielded more than 28 points a contest in their four losses over the first six weeks of the season. They were equally stingy against the run and pass during the year.
Carolina was the dominant team in the league for most of the regular season, but they’re not Super Bowl favorites thanks to both their tough road and their pedigree; neither QB Cam Newton nor head coach Ron Rivera has ever won a championship, unlike the QB and coach on the other side of the field.
Though not full of marquee names, the Panther offense led the NFL in scoring at 31.3 points per game while holding opponents to 19.3 (sixth in the league). They ranked 11th in passing defense, fourth stopping the run, and were +20 in turnover differential, the best in the league by a wide margin.
Not surprisingly, with Jonathan Stewart pounding the ball behind a strong o-line and dual-threat Newton under center , Carolina was second in the league in rushing yards. Their passing numbers aren’t great (24th in the NFL), but a lot of that can be chalked up to the fact that they held a lot of big fourth-quarter leads and eschewed the passing game. Newton threw for a career-high 35 scores, a career-low ten interceptions, and managed the best passer rating of his career.
Carolina faced only three teams that made the playoffs this year, but beat them all, including the Seahawks in Seattle (27-23); they also downed Green Bay (37-29) and Washington (44-16).
The Panthers are 11-5 against the spread and 6-2 in Charlotte. The cumulative score of their last three homes games is 120-26.
Though weather can be blamed to some degree, the Seahawks needed a lot of luck to beat a middling Minnesota team last week. Carolina won in Seattle during the regular season despite losing the turnover battle. Fifteen regular seasons wins, extra rest, and home field, leads us to believe the Panthers will win, perhaps relatively easily.
Pick: Carolina -3.
(Photo Credit: Keith Allison (Flickr) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.)