Carolina Panthers at Seattle Seahawks (-11, 40.5 o/u)
The Seattle Seahawks and Carolina Panthers had vastly different regular season records, but they both enter Saturday night’s Divisional Playoff game (8:15 p.m. Eastern on FOX) on hot streaks.
Carolina finished the regular season at 7-8-1, but four of those seven wins came in the final four weeks. They then went on to defeat the Arizona Cardinals at home last Saturday (27-16, good enough to cover the modest 4.5-point spread), setting up their visit to Seattle to play the defending champion Seahawks.
Panther quarterback Cam Newton has looked much healthier down the stretch, but last weekend’s game seemed to take a toll on his body. Wounded or not, though, the Panthers will need Newton to have his best performance of the season against Seattle’s vaunted defense.
The emergence of Carolina running back Jonathan Stewart, who has started playing his best football of the year in the last few weeks, should help take some pressure of Newton. Stewart ran for 123 yards and a touchdown against Arizona last weekend, and the Panthers will be hoping for something similar against Seattle.
Hoping will be a lot easier than achieving, though, as the Seahawks had the third-best rush-defense in the NFL during the regular season, limiting opponents to 81.5 yards per game. The Seahawks will also come into the game rested. Their 12-4 regular season record was good enough to earn a first-round bye and home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs.
After seeing the hits Newton took last week, expect Seattle’s front seven to be very aggressive in the pass rush and try to force Newton out of his comfort zone.
On offense, Seattle will rely on its one-two punch of quarterback Russell Wilson and running back Marshawn Lynch. Lynch has punished defenses all season, and his smash-mouth game is tailor-made for the playoffs.
Wilson, meanwhile, didn’t put up gaudy passing stats like many of the other playoff QBs, but he had a career year with his feet (849 yards rushing and six touchdowns) and looks to be in complete control of Seattle’s offense.
However, Wilson and Lynch will be facing a Carolina defense that’s been on its own roll of late. The Panthers have generated a consistent pass rush during their five-game win streak, and linebackers Thomas Davis and All-Pro Luke Kuechly are playing at exceptionally high levels.
Seattle is currently an 11-point favorite for Saturday’s game. The over/under is at 40.5. The two teams combined for just 19 points when they met in 2013, and 22 when they met earlier this season. The two great defenses should produce another low-scoring affair this Saturday.
(Photo credit: Keith Allison (Flickr) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons. Photo may appear cropped.)