With Arizona’s exciting overtime win over a resilient Green Bay team, the Seahawks know where they will be going if they can knock out Carolina for the second straight year.
So, the big question: Can the Seahawks exact some revenge on the Panthers for the last-minute, 27-23 win in Week 6?
That loss — a second straight fourth-quarter collapse — sent the Seahawks to 2-4, where their historic odds of making the playoffs were 8.3 percent. But, since then, they have won nine of 11 — including the “football gods are smiling on you” wild-card win in Minnesota.
What has changed since that Week 6 loss to Carolina?
Let’s start with the personnel. The Seahawks were a mess on defense in Week 6. Bobby Wagner, Jeremy Lane, Marcus Burley and Jordan Hill were out, and several other defenders were injured. Kam Chancellor was still in preseason mode after sitting out the first two games — he had figured large in giving up two touchdowns in the meltdown in Cincinnati in Week 5. Earl Thomas was still playing hesitantly — and figured in the losing touchdown vs. Carolina as well. Cary Williams was still starting at cornerback — a liability who was later released.
This time, Wagner, Lane, Burley and Hill are playing. Williams has been replaced by Lane and DeShawn Shead. Thomas has played great over the second half of the season. Chancellor even made a play last week (before getting burned twice on the potential losing drive) and is facing a team he dominated in last season’s divisional playoffs.
“We’re not the same team, that’s for sure,” DC Kris Richard said this week. “Critical pieces were missing in that game. … We do feel as though we’re better.”
Michael Bennett told MMQB: “Losing Cary and adding Lane and Shead in the game has really turned our season around a lot. No offense to Cary, but these guys have been in the defense a lot longer than Cary, so they kind of understand where the holes are and what you have to do, and I think they have done a great job of taking us back to that level where we are used to playing.”
Bennett said quarterbacks have to hold the ball a little longer now, which gives the pass rushers time to make the passers move.
“That starts with everybody playing football together,” Bennett said. “We’ve got a lot of great players playing in one accord.”
The offense also has found its synchronicity. In the first half of the season, the Hawks had the worst red-zone offense in the league and struggled to score touchdowns. But they switched centers, from Drew Nowak to Patrick Lewis, for the Carolina game. Lewis got hurt and missed two games, but the offense got it going when he came back.
Along the way, OC Darrell Bevell tweaked his route combinations and prodded Russell Wilson to get the ball out quickly. That all conspired to fix the passing attack, and Wilson and Doug Baldwin were the NFL’s hottest QB-WR duo in the second half of the season.
Coincidentally, both of these games against Carolina have featured the return of Marshawn Lynch. In Week 6, he was coming back from a two-game absence due to a hamstring injury and most people were more focused on the emergence of rookie Thomas Rawls. Now, Lynch is coming back from a two-month absence due to abdominal surgery, and the media focus is greater because Rawls is on IR. Christine Michael has done well enough as the main back, and anything Lynch provides will be a bonus.
The Seahawks are 4-1 vs. Cam Newton, having won in Carolina three times from 2012 through 2014 and then winning the divisional playoff in Seattle last year at this time. The 10 a.m. start will not bother the Seahawks, who just won a 10 a.m. game in the sub-freezing cold in Minnesota and also are 2-0 in early games in Charlotte the past four years.
Seattle’s offense — stymied by the cold in Minnesota — should heat up again and be able to move the ball against a Carolina defense that is weak at cornerback opposite Josh Norman.
Then it really comes down to the Seattle defense containing Newton. The Seahawks have held him to 54.1 percent passing, with just one touchdown pass, in three wins in Carolina since 2012. Even in the Panthers’ win in Seattle this season, his passing was nothing to boast about — he completed just 55.6 percent and threw two interceptions. But he also ran for a TD and threw the winning pass to Greg Olsen in the final 32 seconds. The Seahawks held a nine-point lead with under 12 minutes left, but the defense gave up two 80-yard TD drives and the offense did nothing to offset them.
But this is a different Seattle team — one that is playing together and better on both sides of the ball. And, for that reason, the Seahawks are poised to beat Newton in Carolina for the fourth straight time and in the divisional playoffs for the second year in a row.