Seattle Seahawks (11-6 SU, 8-8-1 ATS) vs. Carolina Panthers (15-1 SU, 11-5 ATS)
NFL Divisional Playoffs
Date/Time: Sunday, January 17/1:05pm ET
Where: Bank of America Stadium
by Evergreen, NFL Handicapper, Predictem.com
Point Spread: SEA +2.5/CAR -2.5
Over/Under Total: 44
With the march through the playoffs heading into the second weekend, the matchups really do show how important it is to have a premier quarterback in the NFL. One of the tilts on the NFC side features two MVP candidates at QB as Russell Wilson leads the Seahawks into Carolina to take on Cam Newton and the Panthers. Both signal-callers represent the best of the new-age quarterback with their mobility, elusiveness and arm strength but if you think that this game is simply going come down to which QB performs better, remember that these teams possess two of the best defenses in the league as well. Given Seattles recent playoff pedigree and Carolinas sterling 15-1 regular season effort, the winner of this one will likely be the favorite to win the NFC.
It is hard to imagine this game being anything other than a hard-fought and close throughout and that is reflected by the online betting sites tabbing Carolina as slight 2.5 point favorites. Seattle might be the most talented #6 seed in NFL history and they certainly have the edge in playoff experience. The Seahawks played their best football down the stretch, going 6-2 against the spread in the back half of the season but the Panthers finished on a four game ATS win streak at Bank of America Stadium. Carolina doesnt have the legendary home-field advantage that Seattle enjoys but the Panther fans have to be riding high as Cam and the crew have looked the part since the start of the season.
These teams met way back in Week 6 with the Panthers pulling a rather surprising 27-23 upset in Seattle. We really didnt know how good this Carolina team was at the time and that win went a long way to validating their early success. The Seahawks were not playing to their classic form at that point of the season and the 12th man was not enough to seal a win as Newton hit TE Greg Olsen for the game winning TD with just about 30 seconds left in the game. The game itself was a bruising, back-and-forth contest as one would expect with neither team getting too much done offensively. Both Newton and Wilson used their legs to good effect but it was Cam that notched one of his 10 rushing touchdowns on the season before throwing the game-winner. It should be mentioned that Carolina was coming off a bye week when that game was played and while they enjoy the same scenario this time around, Week 6 afforded two weeks of prep while they are limited to just one in this case. Both Jonathan Stewart and Marshawn Lynch scored in that game as well and the possibility exists that both will be back from injury for Sunday. Stewart is expected to play after missing three games with a foot injury and Lynch is still listed as questionable after hernia surgery. Lynch was thought to suit up heading into last week but ultimately could not go. Perhaps the frigid conditions in Minnesota last week played some factor in Lynch not appearing but there wont be sub-zero temps this weekend and games dont get much more important than this so I would expect to see Lynch in there if at all possible.
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Seattle was on shaky ground in the first half of the season as poor play on the offensive line and uncharacteristic lapses on defense had them looking like they might miss the playoffs altogether. They got most everything squared away through the back portion of the schedule however and now the O-line is blocking well and more importantly protecting Russell Wilson. The Seahawks won their 6th straight road game last week as they survived a wild Wildcard game and while most people will remember that game for the Blair Walsh field-goal miss, Seattle did what it normally does and made just enough plays when it counted. The Hawks offense will operate against a top-10 defense that is allowing just 19.2 points per game. Carolina is relentless with the pass-rush, leading to 43 sacks and that pressure has also led to bad throws by the opposing QB to the tune of 24 interceptions. Four Panthers have at least four interceptions entering this week and you thought the Legion of Boom was a solid secondary. How Seattle protects Wilson and how that does or doesnt turn into passing game success is likely the key factor for the Seahawks offense.
There really isnt much to say about Carolina on offense outside of the crazy production of Cam Newton. Cam is never going to be a high completion percentage guy but he more than makes up for that with his ability on the ground and he still threw for 35 touchdowns and just 10 interceptions and that was without Kelvin Benjamin. Ted Ginn, Greg Olsen and an emerging Devin Funchess have done well enough to make the pass game work but they now face a pass defense allowing just 210 yards per game. Ginn, questionable with a knee injury, is having the best year of his career with 10 touchdowns and his availability would at least give the look of a down-field threat. We will see plenty of the straight-ahead run game by Jonathan Stewart but Seattle is stout against the run as well, allowing just 81 yards per game so do not expect a dynamic rushing effort but rather one that will control the tempo and time of possession. Once you get on board with some of Carolinas limitations on offense and Seattles obvious strengths on defense, you see pretty clearly that this game is square on Cam Newtons shoulders but what else is new, right?
I think this game will be played out very quickly as both teams will be running the ball as a feature of the offense. Play-action passing, scramble-plays and plays that look like they were drawn in the dirt will be the ones that ultimately swing the field in this one as neither defense looks like it going to give up much if both teams lines up 11-on-11 and just duke it out. We saw the impact of just one broken-play gone right for Seattle against Minnesota when Wilson found Tyler Lockett after a fumbled snap. That play led to one of just two scores on the day for the Seahawks and I could easily see a play of that nature factoring huge in this contest. Cam is the obvious driver of that kind of offense for Carolina both with his feet and his arm but Seattle has the edge in that X-factor category as they have proven it time and time again with just about every offensive player providing a huge spark at some point this season. Russell Wilson is about as smart as it gets outside of Peyton Manning and Tom Brady but it almost seems like Seattles offense is designed to free up a 4th WR or back-up TE at some random time and Wilson never misses him. Doug Baldwin has broken out as a top receiving threat but you really do have to defend each and every Seahawk from start to finish on every play.
It was surprising for me to see that this is matchup features the 1st and 5th ranked offenses in the league in terms of points allowed. I knew both teams were scoring a ton of points in wins but so much attention gets heaped on these defenses that the other side of the ball went a bit unnoticed. Carolina enters averaging 31.2 points per game and had only five games this season where they won by fewer than seven points. Ultimately, I think that lack of pressure situations hurts them against a team like Seattle that has been through the grinder countless times in recent seasons, including just last week. The offensive line has protected Wilson well enough for me to think that Seattle can keep Kawann Short and others out of the pocket and let the passing game work. Seattle did give up a rushing touchdown to Newton in the first meeting but held him to just 30 yards and it will be tough for the Panthers to move that ball if Newton is similarly silenced in this one. I expect the usual efficient effort by Wilson but I think someone in the Seattle secondary gets their hands on a Cam Newton interception like they did twice in Week 6. Im not sure how we would have looked at the upcoming game if Seattle would have pulled it out in the end but right now, I look at it like the Seahawks are now a better team with a proven track record ready to face an opponent they know they can beat despite the disparity in record. Cam is likely going to give his usual do-it-all effort and might see 300 scrimmage yards on his own but I think Seattle sneaks out a 24-20 win so Im certainly taking the 2.5 and there are plenty of online sportsbooks where you can find a three point line to boot.
Evergreens Pick to Cover the Point Spread: Seattle
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