SEATTLE -- In each of the last three seasons, the Carolina Panthers and Seattle Seahawks have played at Bank of America Stadium, the Panthers' home park, and the average score of those games has been 13.7 to 9.3 -- which made Seattle's status as 10.5-point favorites coming into this divisional round matchup somewhat curious. Yes, there are few places in any sport with a more compelling home-field advantage than Seattle's CenturyLink Field, but the odds suggested that the Panthers, who came into this game with an 8-8-1 mark after their wild-card win over the Arizona Cardinals, were going to be Seattle's chump this time around.
Maybe Vegas makes all that money for a reason. The Panthers hung in for a while, but were once again unable to beat the defending Super Bowl champion Seahawks, who are trying to become the first NFL team since the 2003-04 New England Patriots to win two straight Lombardi trophies. Carolina has been a historically tough out for this Seattle team under head coach Pete Carroll and John Schneider, because both teams play so similarly -- their offenses are built on power running and a quarterback option attack, and their defenses are built on estimable front fours, outstanding linebackers and young secondaries that have learned to deal with all the pressures that the NFL can bring.
On this day, though, the 31-17 final score represented what was seen on the field -- the Panthers are a team in development to be what the Seahawks are now. When end Michael Bennett said this week that the two teams are very similar, he may have intimated that the similarities don't always add up.
“It’s so much alike, man," Seattle's defender told the Everett Herald. "It’s like you look at a girl who looks like you, and you find out it’s your cousin, so you can’t go on a date with her even though you’d like to, because she looks like you. But then you see her friend, and her friend’s really hot, and you’re like, ‘That’s not my cousin,’ so it’s good.”
Well ... we're not sure what that means, but here's what we do know. Russell Wilson, unlike Cam Newton, is able to overcome a shaky offensive line and average receivers to make spectacular plays. Marshawn Lynch is able to transcend the sometimes subpar run-blocking put forth by his offensive line to dominate defenses as he did in the third quarter of this game. And Seattle's Legion of Boom secondary is able to shut opposing teams down in ways that Carolina's young secondary is still learning.
These Panthers are on their way. They just ran into a buzzsaw at the wrong time. And when Cam Newton started to get inefficient as the game went on, it was another Kam -- Seattle safety Kam Chancellor -- who made Newton pay with a 90-yard pick six with 6:11 left in the game.
It wasn't always a blowout, though. The Panthers barely missed turning the ball over twice on their first drive -- Jonathan Stewart had a fumble out of bounds after a quick pass on the first play from scrimmage after an Earl Thomas karate chop, and an incompletion from Newton to Jerricho Cotchery shot up in the air, where three different Seahawks defenders barely missed it.
Carolina's second drive ended with a long pass from Newton to Philly Brown -- Sherman had outside position and the sideline as a boundary, a situation you want to avoid when facing Seattle's best cornerback. That said, Newton had Benjamin deep on Sherman for a touchdown on the third play of the second half had Newton not overthrown it. Of course, Philly Brown isn't Kelvin Benjamin, and Sherman came down with Cam's pass, ending Carolina's drive.
With 2:22 left in the first quarter, Michael Bennett caused a fumble recovered by Tony McDaniel, and the Seahawks got the first score of the game on the subsequent drive -- Wilson to Doug Baldwin over safety Tre Boston, who Baldwin shook out of his shoes with a quick little shiver on a slot seam route.
The Panthers tied the game up at 7-all with 7:44 left in the first half on a Newton seven-yard pass to Benjamin, as Benjamin showed his size advantage over cornerback Tharold Simon and safety Earl Thomas. It was 14 plays, 79 yards, 8:12 on the drive -- a lot of Panther power football between Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams. With Brandon Mebane and Jordan Hill out with injuries, Carolina was wise to exploit Seattle's weaker-than-usual interior defensive line.
Then, with 4:54 left in the first half, Wilson had a ridiculous throw to Jermaine Kearse on a deep fade for a 67-yard touchdown. Kearse got away with a little push-off, but there was no denying the touch and timing of that throw. When it comes time for Wilson to negotiate his new contract in the offseason, that kind of throw will certainly be on the table.
That put the Panthers in a 14-7 hole with 53 seconds left in the first half, and they went for it on 4th-and-1 from the Seattle 27-yard line. Newton converted with a bowl-over sneak, but he then threw an awful near-interception to Earl Thomas close to the end zone intended for Benjamin. Thomas didn't hold onto the ball, but it was a brilliant play. On the previous play, Kam Chancellor threw Williams to the ground as if he was a small sack of groceries after beating a block on a screen for two yards. Such in the excellence of Seattle's safety duo. And on the next play, Chancellor waxed Mike Tolbert to limit the Panthers to a field goal, which Chancellor almost blocked with an incredible timed leap.
In the second half, the Panthers added quick passes to their option arsenal, forcing Seattle's defense to combine aggressiveness and hesitation in ways that were not beneficial, and Carolina started moving the ball again. It's a tough go for any defense, no matter how good, when you need to assign defenders to watch several aspects of a package play. However, a Cliff Avril sack of Newton with 7:35 left in the third quarter from the Seattle 41-yard line, and two straight errant throws to open receivers by Newton (a recurrent problem for Carolina's quarterback) scuttled that opportunity and forced the Panthers to punt once again.
On Seattle's corresponding drive, Wilson started things off with a 14-yard run, and a few plays later, Lynch got serious and gained 25 yards on one of his typically bruising runs, moving what seemed like half the Carolina defense from the Seattle 41 to the Carolina 34. But in the end, it was linebacker Thomas Davis -- who's played as well as anyone at his position this season -- who bullied up that drive with a 12-yard sack of Wilson on 3rd-and-3 from the Carolina seven-yard line, limiting the Seahawks to a field goal.
From there, it started to get ugly as Wilson and Lynch began to rip Carolina's defense apart, and Chancellor once again announced his presence with authority. It was a nice run for a Panthers team that improved as the season went on, but the Seahawks showed why they're the defending champs -- and why they stand the best chance of any team in the last decade to pull off the repeat.