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The defending Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks host the Carolina Panthers in the divisional round of the NFL Playoffs on Saturday. The Seahawks are 24-2 at home over the last three seasons, including the playoffs.
They defeated Carolina 13-9 in their regular-season meeting in Charlotte. The victory snapped their two-game skid and propelled them to a three-game win streak. They went on to win nine of 10 games, the last six in a row, on their way to gaining home-field advantage in the NFC Playoffs.
Carolina enters the contest on a five-game win streak following their 27-16 win over the Arizona Cardinals in last weekend's NFC Wild Card game. Their defense set an NFL Playoff record, holding the Cardinals to 78 total yards on offense. Arizona was held to eight first downs in 17 drives. The Cardinals were limited to 1.6 yards per pass and 1.6 yards per rush while turning the ball over three times.
Carolina linebackers Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis led the defensive effort. Kuechly had 10 tackles and an interception while Davis was in on seven tackles. Since entering the NFL in 2012, Kuechly is credited with 473 tackles, the most of any player in that span.
QB Cam Newton was 18-of-32 for 198 yards with two touchdowns and one interception; he also ran the ball seven times for 35 yards.
Running back Jonathan Stewart carried the ball 24 times for 123 yards to lead Carolina's rushing attack.
Seattle boasts the league’s best defense, allowing 267.1 yards per game. They became the first team since the 1969-71 Minnesota Vikings to lead the league in scoring defense (15.9 points per game) three consecutive seasons. Their rush defense ranks third in the NFL, allowing 81.5 yards per game; their secondary the “Legion of Boom” has allowed 185.6 yards passing per game, the fewest in the NFL.
Cornerbacks Richard Sherman and Byron Maxwell, combined with strong safety Kam Chancellor and free safety Earl Thomas, make up a very physical and talented secondary. The quartet had 271 total tackles and eight interceptions, Sherman led the group with four picks.
Linebackers K.J.Wright (107) and Bobby Wagner (104) led the team in tackles while fellow linebacker Bruce Irvin had 6.5 sacks and two interceptions.
Up front the Seahawks are led by Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril. Bennett had 38 tackles and 7 sacks; Avril has contributed 5 sacks and 23 tackles.
Russell Wilson and Marshawn Lynch lead the NFL’s No. 10 scoring offense with 24.6 points per game.
Wilson, in his third season, finished 2014 with a 95.0 passer rating. He threw 20 touchdowns and seven interceptions while completing 63.1 percent of his passes. His running was more impressive. He rushed for 849 yards for a 7.2 per carry average with six touchdowns.
Lynch rushed for 1,306 yards and scored 17 touchdowns, 13 on the ground and four through the air. Since 2011, Lynch leads the NFL in touchdowns with 56.
Carolina’s offense must control the line of scrimmage and establish a run game; Stewart has four games with 20-plus carries and the Panthers have won all four. Newton has the running ability to keep the Seahawks off balance and is capable of making big plays with his arm throwing to receivers Kelvin Benjamin, Jerricho Cotchery and Philly Brown as well as tight end Greg Olsen.
Seattle presents a multitude of offensive problems for Carolina. The power running game with Lynch and Wilson’s ability to defy the sack create matchup issues for the Panthers front seven.
Seattle’s No. 27 ranked pass offense, featuring Doug Baldwin, Jermaine Kearse, Luke Wilson and Paul Richardson, must take advantage on an inexperienced Carolina secondary. A secondary, made up of veterans Roman Harper and Josh Norman, is joined by rookies Tre Boston and Bené Benwikere.
Great defense and ball control win in the playoffs, and Seattle has both. I don’t see the Panthers being able sustain long drives on offense in a very hostile environment. The Seahawks, double-digit favorites early in the week, should take advantage of home field and dispose of the Panthers on their way to the NFC Championship.